Cisco Launches AI-Powered Spark Assistant That Brings Amazon Echo-Type Technology To Business Meetings

Cisco has created an enterprise-ready voice assistant solution that brings the technology of popular consumer products like Amazon Echo and Google Home into the business world, but with "more power," said Cisco's unified communications leader Rowan Trollope.

"We had to do some interesting things that are quite different from what you think about when you think about a virtual assistant like a Siri or a Google Home in that this is a team assistant and it's something that can interact with teams. So it's not a personal assistant, it's a team assistant and it's part of your team," said Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Applications Group, to a group of media and analysts at Cisco Partner Summit 2017. "It's a virtual team member. That means it has to solve some quite different problems."

The San Jose, Calif.-based networking giant's new Cisco Spark Assistant is an all-purpose voice assistant built into the Spark platform and aimed at making meetings run more smoothly. Spark Assistant allows users to call, start or end a meeting, as well as join meeting rooms without any typing or dialing by saying, for example, "Hey, Spark. Call my meeting room."

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The new offering includes machine learning, speech recognition, dialogue management, speaker tracking, intelligent proximity, language understanding and face recognition technology.

At the heart of Spark Assistant is the Nvidia Jetson processor that allows Cisco engineers to use artificial intelligence to build intuitive and intelligent capabilities, according to Trollope. "We optimized AI for the conference room," he said.

Cisco gained much of the features inside Spark Assistant from its acquisition this year of artificial intelligence startup MindMeld for $125 million. The San Francisco-based startup had spent three years developing its MindMeld platform that enables companies to create intelligent conversational interfaces for any app or device.

Tim Tuttle, the founder and former CEO of MindMeld, who is now CTO of Cognitive Collaboration at Cisco, said Spark Assistant is the "next-generation assistant" that can help employees work more efficiently in the office or in a home office.

"Today, no company has actually launched a conversational voice assistant that makes our jobs easier. Makes our meeting and collaboration sessions easier – that's exactly what Spark Assistant is designed to do," said Tuttle.

"It uses the most advanced naturally understanding dialogue management technology. The goal is to streamline your meetings and your collaboration sessions," he said.

Jim de Poortere, CEO of Viju Group, a solution provider and Cisco partner who has been demoing the solution, said businesses are going to want to buy Spark Assistant "right away."

"This is going to be an early, easy adoption … and not just in the conference room, but through all of their daily use from Spark -- from their mobile device, all the way through to the complex meeting room," said Poortere.

Poortere said customers don't want to build "over-integrated" meeting rooms.

"They want a simple solution they can plug in and it works, and they want to be able to use it across their entire work environment," he said.

Cisco also unveiled at Partner Summit its new flagship Cisco Spark Room 70, which will include the Spark Assistant. Spark Room 70 will replace one of Cisco's top-selling video systems, the MX800.

The new hardware includes 70-inch, 4K screens with both single- and dual-screen models available as well as double the amount of cameras compared with the MX800.

Spark Assistant will soon be implemented across the entire Cisco Spark portfolio including the Spark Board, according to Cisco.

Trollope said the offering eventually will be able to do much more, such as assign action items and create meeting summaries. Spark Assistant is targeted at the SMB market all the way up to large enterprises.

"The announcement of our intent to acquire BroadSoft gives us access to a whole new channel that gives us access to the SMB in a way that we never had before. So you can absolutely imagine that we would love to bring technologies like Spark Board, Spark, Spark Assistant down to the smallest companies in the world," said Trollope.

Cisco unveiled its plan to acquire unified communications specialist BroadSoft for $1.9 billion last week, which is expected to close during the first quarter of calendar year 2018.

The networking leader unveiled Cisco Spark in early 2015. Cisco has been adding features, creating new licensing models and adding hardware to the portfolio over the years.

Trollope said Spark is not a technology that's limited to large companies.

"We're building this from a cost perspective, from an affordability perspective, to run in everything from a two-person company to 200,000," said Trollope.