Cisco's Spark Board looks like an iPad -- and acts like one

The all-in-one meeting device is a full-fledged client for Spark meetings, with tight iOS integration

The Spark Board meeting device that Cisco Systems introduced on Tuesday is not so much a whiteboard or a videoconferencing screen as a giant tablet that everyone in the room can share.

There’s even a “home” button in the center of the bottom bezel that takes you back to the main menu. If Apple didn’t have a partnership with Cisco, you might even expect it to accuse the networking giant of copying its iPad design.

But Apple and Cisco are in fact working together, so closely that iPhones can work with the Spark Board a little more smoothly than other phones do. And in developing the new all-in-one device, Cisco focused on simplicity and ease of use, which haven’t exactly been hallmarks of the networking giant’s products up to now.

“For this product, we needed something that was familiar. We needed an experience that was obvious,” said Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of IoT and applications, as he introduced the product on Tuesday in San Francisco.

Rather than a peripheral for a meeting leader’s PC, the Spark Board is a full-fledged client designed specifically to run Spark, Cisco’s cloud-based collaboration service. Users can draw on it with their fingers or with an expensive-looking black aluminum pen meant to simulate a dry-erase marker, and the screen even has a pinch-to-zoom feature like phones and tablets do for blowing up small details.

Like the first iPhone, the Spark Board is three things in one: a presentation display, a whiteboard and a videoconferencing system. These come in the form of a 55-inch or 70-inch 4K touchscreen display with a camera, microphones and speakers. They cost $4,990 and $9,990, respectively, plus $199 per month for software. Cisco says these can match the quality of dedicated room systems. It was hard to verify that claim under the demonstration conditions at Cisco’s event on Tuesday, but the ease of starting up meetings and shifting between video chats and whiteboarding was convincing.

Things are even more streamlined for Apple users. The Spark Board is tightly integrated with iOS, said Jonathan Rosenberg, a Cisco Fellow and vice president and CTO for the company’s collaboration business. For one thing, it can use the iPhone’s native Contacts database to automatically create entries for dialing in to Spark Board sessions.

The Spark Board is just a first step toward what Trollope sees as a new mode of computing that will be shared instead of personal. The idea is that people who share workspaces and content shouldn’t have to work through computers designed for individuals. Cloud computing, which powers everything the Spark Board does, at least for now, helps to make that possible. There’s more to come on this vision, but ease of use is the starting point, Trollope said.

For example, the Spark Board has enough computing power, thanks to a pair of Nvidia Jetson TX1 chips, to use face recognition to tell which participants are missing a meeting, Trollope said. Cisco has many more features in mind and will choose which to implement based on data it anonymously collects about how customers use the Spark Board, he said.

Some new security options are on the way, too. All inputs shared in a Spark Board meeting, such as drawings on the interactive whiteboard, are encrypted on the user’s device before being sent to the cloud, said Jens Meggers, senior vice president of cloud collaboration. The keys to encrypt and decrypt that data come from a global cloud and are discarded as soon as they’re used.

In the next few months, Cisco will offer alternatives to meet strict security and privacy needs, Meggers said. Customers will be able to have keys generated in their own region of the world or on their own premises instead of in Cisco’s global cloud.

“This product isn’t done,” Rosenberg said in a press briefing at the launch event. “This is the beginning.”

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