When you think of Cisco, you probably don’t think of great consumer-facing technology. Sure, there was the Flip camera, a solid HD camera that got hopelessly overtaken by events once cell phones started having video worth a damn. And the company’s product placement spending remains strong — if you’ve seen video conferencing in a movie recently, chances are it was on Cisco equipment.
But overall, the networking giant’s bread and butter has always been in the network, far away from the end consumer.
Now the company’s collaboration division seems to be looking to change that. Collaboration is the area that develops Cisco’s video conferencing hardware and software, from high-end executive video conferencing rooms down to WebEx, its enterprise-focused Skype competitor. In the past year or so, the collaboration division has been trying to update its products to be sleeker, easier to use, and just all around more premium seeming, while pricing them to appeal to a broader audience than in the past.
It’s also been trying some more creative designs, including one prototype codenamed Spring Roll that representatives for Cisco showed off to me recently.
Spring Roll is an attempt at sussing out what a next-gen collaboration device might look like, put together by a team headed by Susie Wee, vice president and chief technical officer of networked experience at Cisco. And while Wee was quick to stress that Spring Roll is not anything approaching a product yet (there are only two of the devices in existence), it’s already one of the most impressive-looking video conferencing systems I’ve seen.
The first thing you notice about Spring Roll is its shape: rather than being a straight bank of monitors the way many of these systems are, Spring Roll consists of one giant video wall that wraps around a corner of a conference room. That gives it more viewing space even in a relatively small room like the one where I was given the demo. But the curve is about more than screen real estate; it’s about collaboration — the whole display is actually a giant touch screen that can morph into a digital whiteboard or display pictures and slides. When participants on both sides of the call are working on it, the screen’s unorthodox L shape makes them feel as though they are standing shoulder to shoulder at a whiteboard in the same room.
The idea, Wee said, is to make video conferencing that is better for brainstorming and collaboration. That’s never been something video has done well — it’s great for when you just want to speak to someone face to face, but the instant that things need to get more interactive than just talking, the inherent weirdness of collaborating at a distance reasserts itself. But because Spring Roll combines high-definition, basically lag-free video on life-sized screens with a surface that both sides of a call can manipulate, it ends up seeming much more natural.
It’s not hard to see why this might be a hit with creative industries that tend to have more brainstormy styles of meetings, like advertising, software development or the film industry. But there’s another play here — apps. Spring Roll is currently controlled through touch gestures on its screen. They feel extremely natural, and dare I say, Apple-like. Basically, Spring Roll already has a rudimentary OS, and there’s no reason why Cisco couldn’t open it up to developers to add functionality and also monetize through an app store. Indeed, Wee said that was one of the things the team was exploring, and that existing functionality, like the aforementioned digital whiteboard, were basically designed as apps.
I’m not sure I’m ready to call Spring Roll the future of video conferencing yet, but it definitely feels like a giant leap forward. And for a business line that’s in the process of reinventing itself, that’s a very good thing. Wee said the company will be demoing Spring Roll at its Cisco Live conference later this month, so you’ll have a chance to judge for yourself then.