UC&C's Future Is Closer Than You Think: A 'Star Trek' Holodeck Conference Room Isn't For A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Does having your own personal virtual chief of staff sound far-fetched? Or how about conducting a business meeting in a setting similar to the Holodeck in "Star Trek?" This type of technology is not a century away but, rather, a decade, say unified communications and collaboration experts.

Instead of walls in an office you’ll see display screens enabled with communications functions. Think the Internet of Things is going to be a big deal? Just wait until the lines between IoT and unified communications and collaboration blur.

"If we were in a room 10 years from now, we would be able to bring someone in from any other place in the world and have them essentially show up almost like a hologram and have it be very realistic to all of us," said Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco Systems' IoT and Collaboration Technology Group. "It's no longer limited to a screen or a wall or a 'thing' -- it's actually like transporting or teleporting people almost like the Holodeck from Star Trek. That's going to happen and you can already see that beginning with augmented reality. … It's not great yet, but it will be."

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The technology being conceived of today in the UC&C arena will lead to significant changes in how businesses are run and how solution providers operate, according to experts such as Cisco's Trollope, as well as solution providers and analysts involved in the space.

A New Digital Best Friend

The next big UC&C transformation will be the entrance of virtual assistants into businesses. As machines begin acting and looking more like humans, each person will have his or her own programmable virtual assistant with vast amounts of capabilities.

"It's only a matter of time before [Apple's] Siri or [Amazon's] Echo gets a face and a personality and then it's only a matter of time when Siri or whomever learns -- and learns you over time - and starts to really look like a friend," said Trollope. "It might know you better than anybody else in the world knows you because you're constantly engaged with that thing. Those will enter businesses."

The virtual assistant -- or "digital best friend," as Trollope dubs it -- will help an individual find information about a client or subject matter, schedule reminders, automatically set up appointments and even act on a person's behalf to marshal resources similar to a chief of staff. It will basically remember everything you say and who you said it to, said Trollope.

The programmable capabilities inside the virtual assistant theoretically will be limitless. Businesses will be able to purchase different capabilities such as a master forecasting ability or the ability to download information about a certain technology. It also will automate various manual tasks we conduct today, such as checking which emails are important and which are not.

Chris Bottger, chief technology officer at IVCi, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based solution provider, said the future virtual assistant will make organizations and employees extremely efficient. Sales representatives, for example, will get a helping hand in customer responsiveness, which can sometimes make or break a deal, he said.

"Imagine it as all the tools in your tool belt today put together, but in a more automated, seamless, smarter way," said Bottger. "So you wake up and this virtual assistant says, 'Good morning, Chris, it's Monday. Here are the five calls you need to make today to these customers. Here are the three follow-ups from that. There's also a quote you need to do, and here are your two most urgent emails this morning.' And it then tracks your progress throughout the day."

Bots: Building Blocks To The Future

Bots will play an important role in building a digital best friend to help with everyday tasks at work. Companies such as Cisco and Slack, as well as Facebook on the consumer side, are adding bots into their communications technology.

The bots will provide the programming platform to deliver skills to the virtual assistant. Bots eventually will start conducting more predictive and proactive functions such as organizing and starting business meetings, said Joe Berger, collaboration practice manager for World Wide Technology, a $7 billion-plus solution provider ranked No. 12 on the 2016 CRN Solution Provider 500 list.

"So I walk into a meeting room, which triggers the start of a call. The bots or [virtual] assistant already knows what I talked about in the last call so it goes and automatically finds those document and pulls up content for me -- that's five years out," said Berger.

Meetings Will Go Virtual

Experts pointed at the highly popular Pokemon Go trend, a location-based augmented reality game, as a glimpse into the future of how enterprises will conduct meetings.

Whether it's from a Google Glass-type application or more likely a hologram, virtual businesses meetings will be conducted with participants in different locations appearing like they're all in the room.

"All the pieces are in place that will eventually lead to a hologram that looks like the real thing -- someone sitting in a chair opposite from you," said IVCi's Bottger. "And doing it at a low [price] inside a room without costing probably millions of dollars to try to do the same thing today."

In addition, interactive whiteboards will begin to take over office environments. Experts pointed at Microsoft's Surface Hub as an example of what will not only take over the boardroom, but the walls inside an office.

"Every wall being a display surface, that might be an inevitability," said Cisco's Trollope. "Embedded displays everywhere are going to be part of the future. And those embedded displays, one of the functions of them will be to actually enable communications."

Solution Providers Will Have Crucial Role

The solutions and services partners sell in the future will be different as interoperability becomes more critical in a cloud-oriented world.

Solution providers said the cloud is mandating vendors change their proprietary approach to become more open and interoperable, a shift that will only become more crucial over time. Systems integrators will play a key role in designing a solution that enterprises can standardize inside the organization.

"Businesses will want someone who can help them and a dozen other people in different companies work together and share materials seamlessly, no matter whose products are involved," said Gartner unified communications analyst Bern Elliot. "Within a single UC&C portfolio, rather than just having one way to do collaboration and one way to do meetings, you're going to have a set of choices of how to do it. … Channel partners are going to be the answer."

Systems integrators also will play a crucial role building functional virtual assistants for companies, said Elliot.

"For IT help, for example, systems integrators are going to take a service desk-type application and they're going to create an application that looks at the problem reported, synthesizes [it] and makes that information available to the virtual intelligent assistant," said Elliot. "So that becomes a package. … A systems integrator develops a solution and makes that available to be used by different virtual assistants.’

Solution providers also will program the virtual assistants and bots. "Bots and virtual assistants learn over time so they need domain knowledge, they need rules and they have to be trained," said Elliot. "This a really good area for channel partners here because training and learning is a type of program – organizing information so that it can look for patterns."

IoT: The Communications Pathway

Experts agree that the future of UC&C will either be absorbed into IoT or the two will blend together. As billions of more and new devices become connected, IoT becomes the communications pathway.

"IoT will help monetize collaboration," said IVCi’s Bottger. "You're seeing elements of that already. … Look at Cisco Spark -- I walk into a room and it knows who I am, where I am, by using technology coming from your smart device and sending that back to the physical system in the room."

Other examples of what the future may hold can be seen today in the health-care industry. Looking at the recent trend around connected devices like sensors on watches that track health in real time, it's easy to see the important role IoT will play.

"People walking around with a tracker on their wrist or in their shoe, it's going to be interesting how predictive medicine starts taking shape – when my doctor can actually predict in advance that I'm at risk for a heart attack based off, not just my heart rate, but conditions in the air or changing environment," said WWT's Berger. "You can see how tracking all this data, now turning to the business side, will blend IoT and collaboration together to create a better experience."

Cisco's Trollope said with all of the IoT data streaming in, business will be able to quickly identify when a concerning change occurs and the root of the cause -- such as a drop in sales or customer satisfaction, for example.

"The fact that you can constantly engage and improve your product and learn how it's being used to deliver better capabilities to your customer – that's the magic of the transformation of the Internet of Things," said Trollope. "As a result of that, your business model can change, your engagement and communications with your customer can change."

This future world might seem far away, but companies are already developing the technology and investing in areas such as creating a digital best friend.

"We have researchers and R&Ds that are actually developing that," said Trollope. "A virtual best friend telling you to get back out on the road because it knows your sales forecast is coming in light – that's 10 year’s away, I’m telling you."