For a Price, Cisco’s Spark Room Kit Brings Smart Video Calling with Audio and Facial Recognition

Explore the features of the Cisco Spark Room Kit.

In hindsight they should have called it 2017: A Space Odyssey.

We’re getting really close to living in a world that shares all the little technological wonders Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 operatic vision of the future laid out for us.

The movie features iPads, video calling, computer voice and visual interaction, and smart (too smart?) machines that know everything important there is to know about a human as soon as they enter the room.

We have all of that today. The last aspect–automatic identification of people as they enter a room–has been provided by Cisco’s latest video conferencing offering, the Spark Room System.

One of the most ambitious video conferencing set-ups yet to target the small-to-medium business market, the room kit (and its premium version the Spark Room Kit Plus) promises invisible hardware that turns any conference room into a 24/7, instant video platform without remote controls, moveable hardware, or the need to physically log on.

It’s expensive compared to some rival services, and it should be able to make better use of BYOD principles, but this is the way video conferencing is heading.

Always Ready Video Calling

Cisco’s incarnation of Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 promises to do everything but make a cup of coffee for you–or, hopefully, blast you out of an airlock and into space. It’s a permanent, all-in-one package that links to any standard HD screen and operates through a single integrated webcam/speaker/microphone setup, or an additional four-camera bar with the Plus version.

The key feature is a 5K Ultra HD camera that allows the device to recognize faces and voices, and automatically track the shift in who’s speaking in real time. At the moment the facial recognition tech is being used only for framing a shot, but Cisco intends to beef it up so it can identify people.

As it stands, the service can recognize individuals by pairing with their smartphones, and it will automatically turn itself on whenever a paired device enters its personal space. That’s where the HAL 9000 experience kicks in.

Huddle Room Video Calling

The Spark Room Kit is intended for use in small to medium sized rooms, tapping into the current business trend of breakout or huddle room design, which caters to more impromptu meetings of groups of up to 15 people.

With the Spark kit installed (and Cisco claims it takes just minutes to do so) you could walk into a room, smartphone in pocket, and be greeted with a computerized “Good morning Dave, whom shall we call today?”

With a simple vocal instruction, you could be video chatting with clients half a world away in just minutes. There’s no need to set up the room each time, as the kit simply mounts beneath the screen, and there’s no need for bulky hardware, as the system is operated from the Cloud. You can even ask this new HAL simple questions, such as the time in a foreign city or expected weather for the day.

It all sounds very convenient, but there are a couple of digital flies in the ointment.

Cisco Spark Rooms Vs. Skype Room Systems

Cisco has long competed with large-scale, hardware-dependent video conference companies such as Polycom for dominance of the in-room experience. However, that aforementioned huddle room trend and the spread of video conferencing into small and even online-only businesses, means there’s a greater emphasis on small, easy-to-use equipment that comes with a cheaper price tag.

Logitech last year partnered with Microsoft to produce a tablet-powered video calling hub built around Skype for Business. It offers the same always-on, easy to use, huddle room access, and it retails for much less than $1000.

By comparison, the Spark Kit costs $3,990, and the Plus version $7,990. Now, the Spark system offers a lot more tech wizardry than the Logitech offering, but there’s got to be a section of the business world that would happily drop that HAL 9000 personality in order to save $3000.

The two devices are probably best suited to different sections of the market, but the Logitech option also has a BYOD advantage. Its system is operated via tablet inserted in a video calling dock, and that tablet offers a direct link to external information stored on a personal device.

The Spark, however, doesn’t cleanly link with higher-end personal tech, meaning users would have to rely on Cisco’s cloud options for sharing, storing, and recording information.

Those quibbles aside–and if your business considers $3000 a quibble then you should definitely be looking at the Cisco option–Cisco has created a vision of the future that’s available right now. It’s video conferencing without wires, without a complicated startup and setup. Its system of invisible hardware, which recognizes your face and obeys your voice commands, is enough to impress any sci-fi fan.

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