Cisco Demos New Collaboration Functions for TelePresence

NEWS EXCLUSIVE: Cisco Tech Fund hatches Project Spring Roll, which adds "augmented collaboration" tools to the high-end video conferencing service.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Back in 2006, when Cisco Systems launched TelePresence -- its deluxe way to save travel and hotel costs for meetings -- the company said it would fundamentally change the videoconferencing market. And it did to a great extent, thanks to the way it brought high-definition live video with indiscernible latencies to large screens to enable life-size images. Nobody previously had been able to do it that well.

A TelePresence session is indeed impressive. Many a time, people in these long-distance meetings forget that they're continents apart, asking their colleagues through the screen if they can bring them water or coffee. This can be a valuable asset for most large corporations, since it offers real-time, virtual face-to-face meetings for key situations in which facial reactions and body language are very important for business outcomes.

But, let's face it, a high-end teleconference service like this once, which can cost $10,000 to $12,000 per month (less for smaller installations) to rent the equipment and use the service, is hardly for the masses. When low- or no-cost videoconferencing in the form of Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and a list of others came into regular use for individuals and small groups about four years ago, TelePresence to many people looked like video-meeting overkill, and sales began to slip.

New Functionality That Could Recharge Interest in TelePresence

Now Cisco, through its Networked Experiences Group and its internal Cisco Tech Fund innovation-seeking project, has come up with some added functionality that may take TelePresence to a new level, so that some organizations will want to give it another look.

Whereas TelePresence was excellent for one purpose -- bringing people together as if they were across the table from each other -- this new initiative, called Augmented Collaboration, makes the same high-end experience completely collaborative. Instead of seeing only people in meeting mode on the high-definition screens, the first AC project -- called Project Spring Roll -- uses some of the video touch screens to enable documents, slides, photo images, charts and graphs -- and eventually, even outside videos -- to be inserted into the meeting.

The Project Spring Roll software also allows real-time annotation right on the screens for collaborative purposes. For example, it seems ideal for teams of software developers, CGI (computer-generated imagery) animators, health-care service providers, or designers/planners of virtually anything.

eWEEK Given a Preview

eWEEK was shown a demonstration of Project Spring Roll on April 22. The project is in the early development stage, however, and is yet not a product. But it comes with a great of promise; TelePresence certainly can use a shot in the arm, and involving the next level of collaboration is a natural.

The idea seems simple enough to wonder why it hasn't been attempted previously. The reason likely is this: There are some really hard IT problems to solve in order to do this well. Making it all touch-enabled is one thing, but maintaining and coordinating all the actions being taking by teams in real time on both sides of the meeting is quite another.

Another cool feature: Notes written on the touch screens can be saved to the cloud and distributed via an iOS app to participants' iPads -- all with a simple swipe of your hand. This way, nothing gets left in the meeting room; all contributions from meeting participants are saved for future use.

"We want to take collaboration to the next level," Susie Wee, (pictured, left) Cisco Vice-President and CTO of Networked Experiences who's in charge of Project Spring Roll, told eWEEK. "We're simply bringing user experience and TelePresence together. It's always been my dream to tie video to networks. Now that the network is becoming software programmable, this is possible."

Demo Involves Meetups in California, China

In the demo, Wee connected with two of Project Spring Roll's two key developers in China, Edwin Zhang (pictured, right), engineer and user experience design lead, and Zhongping Zhu, a software engineer. Both locations -- at the Cisco headquarters in San Jose and the China location in Shanghai -- had the same TelePresence hardware and software setups.

Not long after the session started, it seemed like Zhang and Zhu were right in the same conference room as the group in San Jose. Participants could walk around the room, move to the collaboration screens and make notations on documents, slides and other graphics, and make changes and updates as needed. It was far and away superior to any Google Hangout or Skype session that I personally have attended. There wasn't a hint of latency, either.

The Augmented Collaboration project Spring Roll obviously will be a solution to be applied to a number of use cases, but it's probably six months to a year away from becoming an optional product on TelePresence, Wee said.

The Cisco Tech Fund is the financial backer of Project Spring Roll. The fund was started four years ago and is directed by Damian Muzzio, director of Cisco Research and Advanced Development. It has 113 projects on the boards and has had about 10 percent of them funded to a total of about $20 million. Project Spring Roll is the first Cisco Tech Fund initiative to be shown to the press.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...