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With Spark Assistant, Cisco adds voice-activated A.I. to videoconferencing

With Spark Assistant, Cisco adds voice-activated A.I. to videoconferencing

Cisco envisions a phased rollout of Spark Assistant, a new service designed to end some of the pain out of setting up office meetings.

Credit: Cisco

Virtual assistants are gaining popularity as Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant get better at quickly retrieving information and helping to organize things. Joining them in the office are smart assistant chatbots, which are being integrated into a variety of enterprise applications.

Now, Cisco wants to bring the power of voice-activated A.I. smarts to conference rooms with its Spark Assistant.   

The idea is for Spark Assistant to take some of the pain out of setting up meetings by allowing voice commands to be used to call colleagues or start, join and leave meetings without interacting with physical devices. The A.I. assistant is activated with a simple, “Hey, Spark.”

The service is the result of Cisco’s $125 million acquisition of MindMeld earlier this year. With Spark Assistant, the startup’s conversational A.I. tools will be incorporated into Cisco’s Spark Room Series video conference displays.

Cisco plans to add features in the future, interacting with users both inside and outside of the meeting room. This includes the ability to find and book available rooms, suggest relevant documents ahead of time, enable screen sharing, record discussions and take meeting notes.

“User interfaces continue to evolve from command line, menus and touch to voice and gestures,” said IDC research director Wayne Kurtzman. “Cisco Spark Assistant signals the inevitable, that intelligent voice should be adapted to the workplace.” 

The smart assistant will initially be rolled out to a small group of Spark Room Series early next year. A phased rollout will provide Cisco with feedback, and help to improve accuracy and usability, the company said in a blog post.

The capabilities of Spark Assistant bear similarities to Microsoft’s plans to bring cognitive capabilities to its Teams group messaging platform. Along with announcing plans to merge its Skype for Business platform with Teams, Microsoft stated that improved A.I. capabilities will highlight relevant documents prior to meetings, record and transcribe conversations, and subsequently add notes and transcriptions to Teams channels.

More widely, virtual assistant chatbots are making their into a range of business uses outside of the collaboration space, such as in the CRM market with Salesforce’s Einstein platform,

Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, said that A.I.  assistants are increasingly being tailored to specific use cases.

“We’ve seen voice-enabled assistants specific to devices and operating systems, but now we’re starting to see application-specific helpers,” said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research. “These in-app-assistants have more specific domain expertise than their general A.I. counterparts. This is analogous to the medical world, where you have general physicians and then more specialized experts."

The advantage of A.I. assistants designed for more targeted use cases is they can be better trained to perform specific tasks. Business meetings, which employees tend to find laborious and ineffective, are one such example.

“Ideally, digital assistants will be able to automate the mundane components of a meeting and let people focus on the agenda and relationships,” Lepofsky said.


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