All A-Board, the Cisco Spark Board


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!


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!

A Conference to Remember

I was apprehensive when I heard our Presidio Exchange conference would be held on a cruise ship in 2016.  I had never been on cruise, but I had toured historical Navy vessels and mentally I had extrapolated their cramped halls with periodic bulkheads to step through to the very dissimilar luxury liner we were destined to travel on.  That misconception paired with abundant jokes about bad weather, hurricanes, Zika, a last-minute schedule change to drag sessions into Saturday, abandonment of private island excursions and the prospects of having the UN’s defined fundamental right to internet access revoked for days collectively had me anticipating a lackluster and melancholy voyage.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I woke up at 4 am Thursday to gather myself and arrive at the airport early for my 7 am flight to Miami.  I worked furiously in the terminal to burn down as much work as I could before boarding the flight and then I started to detach from routine as I took in Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn’s book I’m The Boss Of Me about self-improvement and grabbing life by the horns.  By the time we landed I was five cups of coffee in and ramped up for the day.  Then the gears jammed; the flight was early, the shuttle to the airport was fast, the ship wasn’t ready.  Hundreds of Presidio employees packed into the Norwegian ship terminal for hours waiting to board the vessel.  The terminal lacked both entertainment and food save a pair of vending machines, so everyone was very hungry and very anxious to board the ship.  By the time boarding started, the time allocated for lunch had come and gone and general session is what many had to sate them.

After acquiring sustenance it was easy to get myself into conference mode and soak up the positive outlooks promulgated by our amazing leadership team.  Listening to the thoughts, insights, strategy ideas and initiatives our executives have put together never fails to get me excited about our company, about my relationships with my customers, my career and technology in general.  The positivity these sessions induce is contagious, and in a confined space like a cruise ship, I believe it is greatly amplified.  Like bringing hemispheres of plutonium together, when the mass of people who make up Presidio are put together and positive force is applied, criticality is achieved and we explode in optimism and camaraderie.

Particularly encouraging to me was the last admission that a developer’s mindset is something every engineer will need moving into the future.  I believe this has been an 800-pound gorilla in the industry for years and that many have been terrified of making it angry.  To tell the large, talented and diligent workforce of engineers that they need to need to adapt or perish has been to risk backlash for a long time, but no longer.  It’s a brave new world and we all need to start thinking at a higher level and abandon the ways of the trench digger.  Those themes were made very clear during Exchange and I couldn’t be happier.

Just as encouraging as the inspiring orations of Thursday was the volunteerism of Friday.  Orchestrated by Tony Kaperick and a team of leaders, the Presidio team engaged in extensive Hurricane Matthew relief efforts after arriving in the port of Nassau.  Some went to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army to break down pallets and pack food boxes, and I and many, many others went to Clifton Heritage National Park to help clear the beach.  After a long tour of the devastation as we traveled through the island to arrive at the site, our team was confronted with what seemed to be an insurmountable task.  There were tree limbs and branches all over the beach. Many of these were buried in the beach itself as a result of the slurry of sand and sea water swirled well above normal levels.  Many were impossible to pull from the ground and had to be dug out with shovels.  Some were still mangled and interwoven with the trees that remained and had to be extracted.  Dispersed throughout the beach were assorted trash, roof beams, broken glass, tires, pallets and other non-organic debris all of which made clean up dangerous.  Piled up closer to the current shoreline and extending its entire length was seaweed piled 2-3 feet high in places all of which had similar trash and branches entangled within it.  The stench the seaweed emitted was nauseating as it rotted in place.


Presidio employees tackled the challenge head-on.  Men and women, young and old, muscular and no quite so all went right to work grabbing everything conceivable and moving it several yards off the beach and into piles that could be more easily removed from the site.  We had diggers shoveling sand off of larger limbs so that they could be extracted more easily.  We had pickers who grabbed everything from twigs to forearm thickness branches.  We had crazies with no regard for personal safety (myself included) lift entire trees in Navy Seal fashion to overcome the lack of access to chain saws.  We had meticulous cleaners with rakes who gathered smaller pieces of debris into smaller piles to be gathered and removed.

After a few hours of hard work by all, the condition of the beach was much improved.  At the conclusion of our service, we were met by Mario Steele of the Clifton Authority Board of Directors who thanked us profusely for our efforts and indicated that the hundreds (dare I say thousands) of feet of beach we cleaned up saved them weeks of man hours in a time when many were still rebuilding their own homes.  More important than that, we helped them move closer to reopening the park which helped put money into their economy via eco-tourism.  Mr. Steele even offered to provide anyone who returns with Presidio identification a personal tour and lunch!  We were also thanked extensively by our very lively tour guide on the shuttle, Vivien Wiley, who is descended from the slaves who worked the land at the Wiley plantation that is now the park.  I believe we all felt a great sense of pride, humility and love when we were all done.

Saturday was the day that felt the most like a traditional conference day with a series of shorter sessions focused on individual topics.  As is normal for me at all professional conferences, I attended a wide array of discussions ranging from collaboration discussions to DevOps to network forensics to cloud services.  While everyone had something great to discuss, some of it is governed by NDA and can’t be shared with a public audience.  One thing I am very comfortable sharing is probably the most profound five words I heard at Exchange.  I was compelled to write it down at the time and I am compelled to share it with you now.  “Open up and be vulnerable.”  These words were uttered during the DevOps session in response to someone expressing concern about neophytes being too embarrassed or anxious to ask elementary questions about programming practices.

In this brave new world of automating our lives, we need to start checking our egos at the door.  We need to ask questions in search of knowledge and doing so requires that we discard our fear and not be intimidated by the social responses of our peers.  The simple fact of the matter is, none of us are experts, if we were we would be coders and not engineers.  None of us has experience with DevOps practices.  We need to abandon our fear of failure.  To quote Cisco executive Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn in her book I’m the Boss of Me, “Success takes practice and, by definition, always starts with multiple failures or mediocre results.”  I for one look forward to rolling up my sleeves and setting the Shark Tank in my sights.  I have ammunition embodied in some ideas I’ve long held back because of fear of failure.  I have resolved to abandon my apprehensions and go full steam ahead not only in pursuit of financial rewards, but to make manual tasks less painful and more expedient, which will facilitate higher level thinking.

One full week removed from Exchange, I believe the experience was tremendous and that it is a great time to be a Presidio employee.  I entered this week with unbridled optimism, and it seems to be sticking.  The persistence of communication among our teams after the conference seems to be a departure from conferences past where everyone returned to their daily grinds and abandoned the heady notions they had before Monday deflation.  I look forward to continuing to write.  I look forward to transforming my long shelved development ideas into reality.  I look forward to helping others as I help myself grow.  I look forward to the future.