Augmented reality is seen as a boon for the workplace of the future because it would allow co-workers to collaborate remotely using digital avatars and 3D virtual objects that can be viewed and manipulated in real-time during a meeting.
Nreal unveiled its Nreal Light smartglasses at CES last month; the headset won plaudits for their light weight, usability and moderate prcing. The smart glasses are slated to go on sale later this for $499.
Under the partnership, Spatial’s software will run on Nreal Light, which relies on a smartphone for compute power, offering an affordable way to connect workers in virtual meetings and opening the potential for 5G connectivity as more compatible smartphones arrive on the market.
“I think this partnership is definitely a big deal because it gives Spatial access to probably one of the hottest AR companies out there and it gives Nreal access to more use cases for their headset,” said Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
It’s another boost for Spatial, which has previously partnered with Microsoft to adapt its device-agnostic software for Microsoft’s mixed reality HoloLens; those headsets are more powerful, but also considerably more expensive, than Nreal Light. Spatial also runs on Facebook’s Oculus Quest and Qualcomm’s XR2.
“[Spatial] understands they need a platform that allows as many AR headsets as possible to collaborate with one another seamlessly and effectively,” said Sag. “I believe that they are laser focused on enabling enterprises to collaborate remotely but also to do it in a way that adds value with immersive collaboration and engagement.”
5G connectivity as a differentiator
The two vendors are working with Korea’s LG Uplus, Japan’s KDDI and Deutsche Telekom in Germany on 5G connectivity.
“Consumers will be able to work or interact with anyone, anywhere as if sitting next to each other,” said Spatial co-founder and CEO Anand Agarawala in a statement.
The use of 5G is designed to help overcome some of the barriers to an AR workplace, said Sag. “I believe that 5G will be important for removing some of the connectivity barriers that exist today and reducing the need for as many layers of security in order to collaborate,” he said.
“Collaborating over Wi-Fi when on the same network is great, but once you start incorporating outside networks, you run into security and reliability issues and that’s really where 5G is a major value add,” Sag said.
“5G will be faster than 4G, but the reality is that some 4G is already quite fast to accomplish some of these things. The problem is that 4G is not consistently that fast and that’s really what is going to come with 5G and what’s needed to up-level collaboration and engagement between employees.”
Details about pricing, packaging and plans to work with U.S. telecom firms were not immediately available.
Cisco has added new AI capabilities to Webex Meetings, following the company’s acquisition of Voicea last year. Voicea’s Enterprise Voice Assistant (EVA) speech recognition tech has been integrated into Cisco’s Webex Meetings videoconferencing platform.
New features include automated recording and transcription of conversations, which Cisco said will remove the need for extensive note taking during meetings. Transcripts are searchable, so team members who miss a meeting can quickly locate key topics of discussion without listening through an entire video call.
With real-time transcriptions, closed captions during a video call are also available, while users can tell the Webex Assistant for Meetings to highlight conversation points and create action items for follow-up.
“Voicea users have reported saving more than six hours per week per user with more actionable and efficient meetings — and we believe Webex users will experience similar results,” said Amy Chang, executive vice president, Cisco Collaboration, in a prepared statement.
The Webex Assistant for Meetings features will be open for trials this March, according to a company spokesperson. Pricing has not yet been finalized.
The new features build on existing voice capabilities within Webex. Cisco introduced the Webex Assistant, which lets Webex users kick off conference calls with voice commands, in 2017, following the $125 million acquisition of conversational AI startup MindMeld. Cisco also announced on Tuesday that the Webex Assistant is now available in Spanish.
Cisco is not alone in using AI to improve meetings. Cisco rival Microsoft has added automated transcriptions and live captioning to its Teams app, while Zoom and Google’s Hangouts Meet app have similar features.
“My thoughts are that Cisco is playing catch-up,” said Timothy Banting, a principal analyst at Ovum. “While Voicera is a good acquisition, other vendors such as Microsoft have had this capability for some time and transcription support for a number of languages.”
He said that Cisco’s extensive collaboration portfolio — which includes a range of hosted and cloud platforms for enterprise calls and instant messaging — can create a challenge in terms of balancing priorities and resources for product development. This is the case for several unified communications vendors that compete with rivals that sell a single product. “This crisis of prioritization — trying to spread resources between numerous platforms — is going to continue to challenge traditional UC vendors until they make some tough strategic choices and end-of-life underperforming products,” said Banting.
Cisco also announced that the Voicea technology will be integrated with Google Cloud’s Contact Center AI (CCAI) platform. This provides customer service reps with call transcripts and summaries to ensure that action items are addressed. Call highlights are then automatically synced with customer relationship management (CRM) systems to enable easy reference for past support issues.
Among the other announcements at the Cisco Live Europe event in Barcelona this week are the new Webex Room USB video device to enable Webex access in smaller “huddle rooms.” Webex Teams users will also have the option to store data outside of the U.S. for the first time, with the ability to store group messaging data in Cisco’s European data centers.
Cisco actually offers several different collaboration solutions, though its WebEx Meetings offering, which begins at $19 per month, is probably the most broadly applicable and best-suited for small to midsize business (SMB) customers. You can bundle various services together based on your needs, including training and support centers and webinars. Like StartMeeting, Cisco WebEx Meetings offers a limited free plan and a free trial of its paid features. The service is easy to use and includes some features you won’t find in other video conferencing services, including the ability to have the meeting call you rather than you dialing in. Cisco WebEx Meetings doesn’t offer dial-in conference calls (only web calls) but you can connect it with the service of your choice. It is on the pricy side but Cisco has dropped the price considerably over the past year, which might make it attractive to budget-conscious customers. Still, if you want integrated dial-in numbers and video calls, then ClickMeeting, our Editors’ Choice, is worth a look. Plus, if you’re looking for video conferencing as part of a larger business-class Voice-over-IP (VoIP) service, then look to our other Editors’ Choice winner RingCentral Office (for Business).
Paid plans include Premium 8 ($19 per month for up to eight attendees), Premium 25 ($29 per month for up to 25 attendees), Premium 200 ($39 per month for up to 200 attendees), and Enterprise for which you’ll need to contact Cisco to get precise pricing but which will allow up to 1,000 attendees per meeting. All paid plans include video conferencing with up to seven video feeds, application and screen sharing, meeting recording (audio, video, and content), free mobile apps, and the ability to share the presenter role. CallMe plans are also available in which the conference calls you, but you have to pay a monthly fee starting at $45 for 500 minutes, with a 9-cents-per-minute charge for overages.
WebEx Meetings Free can be used by up to three people, and it also includes a 14-day free trial of the Premium 25 plan. With the free plan, you get one host license, voice-over-IP (VoIP) audio connection (no dial-in numbers), desktop and document sharing, a whiteboard feature, standard-quality video, and 250 megabytes (MB) of cloud storage. Signing up for the trial ups you to 25 attendees, HD video, and adds dial-in numbers.
Helpfully, every time you log in, a message at the top of your dashboard tells you when your free trial ends. However, since you don’t have to supply a credit card, you don’t have to worry about being automatically charged.
Getting Started With WebEx
Sign-up is as easy as filling in your contact information, creating a password, and opting in or out of email notifications from Cisco WebEx Meetings. Then you activate your account via email, at which point you can add a picture and other details to your profile, or skip this if you wish. Then, you can download a Quick Start guide or view how-to videos before you dive in.
Cisco WebEx Meetings‘ user interface (UI) has a modern look compared to other services such as StartMeeting and InterCall. The home page has a startup look, with a large “hero” image up top and a long page that you scroll down to see details of the services offered. You can host or join meetings easily right from the home page, which is nice, since some services require you to log in from a custom URL.
Setting Up a Meeting
From your dashboard, you can select from Meet Now, Schedule, or Join by Number. On the right-hand panel, you’ll see upcoming meetings (if any) and recently viewed files. If you choose to schedule a meeting, then you can set time, date, and duration; add invitees, include an agenda, upload files, set a meeting password, choose audio connection, and tick a box to automatically record the meeting.
For the audio connection, you can use WebEx audio (VoIP), another teleconference service, or none. As I mentioned, Cisco WebEx Meetings doesn’t offer its own dial-in conferencing. If you want to use another teleconference service, you input the dial-in number, moderator, and participant codes, and any notes you’d like to include; all of these will then be displayed in your invitation.
When the start time comes, you’ll need to download a Cisco WebEx Meetings extension or run a temporary app to join the meeting. The extension installs quickly but I ran into some trouble here, which also occurred when I downloaded the join.me module in testing. I have a high-resolution (3,200-by-1,800) display and it doesn’t play well with all desktop apps. So the Cisco WebEx Meetings and join.me modules showed impossibly tiny text that could only be enlarged by changing the resolution of my laptop screen to 1,600 by 900 pixels (which, of course, messed up the look of my other desktop apps).
From here, you can choose whether to dial in or use VoIP, share your screen, invite or remind attendees, record, and turn the camera on or off. You can add contacts by importing them from Micrsoft Outlook or from a file, or by adding them manually.
If you’re a Cisco WebEx Meetings member and you’re invited to a meeting, you can click the Join button on the home page and fill in your name, email, and meeting number. Otherwise, click the link from your meeting and join as a guest by supplying your display name and email address.
The Meeting Experience
Hosts can record the meeting (both audio and on-screen elements), mute and unmute attendees, and end the meeting. All participants can use the chat feature. During the meeting, hosts can share their desktop, a specific app, or files from their computer, including video. A module at the top of the host’s screen shows whether sharing is switched on or not, so you don’t leave that feature on after the meeting. You can also share a virtual whiteboard for sketches and notes. All sharing features can be used concurrently with video chat, which is helpful and not available on some services.
When video conferencing, you can have up to seven video feeds at a time. The host can lock and unlock the focus on a participant any time during the meeting; this way, all attendees can see who is talking. Hosts can also protect meetings with a password.
There are mobile apps for Android, BlackBerry 10, Apple iOS, and Windows Phone 8, including the Apple Watch and Android wearables. The latter let you join or host Cisco WebEx Meetings from your smartphone or smart watch. You can also download plug-ins to schedule meetings right from your Microsoft Outlook account. The WebEx Universal Toolkit lets you create multimedia slideshows for your meetings, including Flash animations.
If you run into issues, then searchable Help documentation is accessible from the meeting space. You can also download user guides, watch how-to videos, and access a knowledge base and FAQ. Support can be contacted by phone, by feedback sent via web form, or you can submit a support case (ticket). Phone support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but only for paid plans.
To make Cisco WebEx Meetings more accessible to business users who conduct meetings in large conference rooms, Cisco recently unveiled Cisco Spark Board. This 55- and 70-inch wireless presentation device lets you share your screen from Macs, PCs, and mobile devices in a larger format so that larger audiences can view content more easily. Like the Microsoft Surface Hub and the Google Jamboard, the Cisco Spark Board features an interactive whiteboard that lets users conduct brainstorm and design-focused meetings.
If your business is interested in this kind of group collaboration, then you’ll want to skip Cisco WebEx Meetings and just get a Cisco Spark Meetings account. Like Cisco WebEx Meetings, Cisco Spark Meetings lets you conduct remote video calls, but the app can connect to the Cisco Spark Board, giving you the power to write on the whiteboard, schedule meetings on the Spark Board—all from your smartphone. The Cisco Spark Board is not meant for consumer use; the 55-inch version costs $4,990 and the 70-inch version costs $9,990. Both require an additional $199 monthly Cisco Spark subscription. However, anyone can use Cisco Spark Free for three-person video calls and up to 5 gigabytes (GB) of file sharing.
WebEx Is a Solid Conferencing Solution
If you’re looking for a screen-sharing and video conferencing service to go along with your existing dial-in conference service, then Cisco WebEx Meetings is a good choice. It offers all of the features you need for quality web conferencing, including VoIP calling, but you have to supply a dial-in number if you want to use landlines. The Cisco WebEx Meetings UI is easy to use, but the service is on the pricey side. Therefore, it’s worth taking advantage of the free trial to see if it works for you. For a less expensive service with conference calling, check out ClickMeeting, our Editors’ Choice.
You no longer need to install Skype or pay a hefty amount for a video call. These free video conference apps let you set up an office meeting or reconnect with friends, each offering something unique in return.
For a simple video call with friends, you can always fire up FaceTime or WhatsApp. But if someone isn’t on Apple or doesn’t have WhatsApp, you need other options.
And then there are office meetings and professional video conference calls, which require other features. From recording the whole video call to adding timestamped notes to the meeting for minutes, you can do a lot more with these apps than WhatsApp or Facetime.
1. ItsHello (Web): Fast, No-Signup, No-Downloads Video Calling
Want to start a video call immediately without registering for an account or jumping through other hoops? ItsHello is the fastest and most hassle-free way to begin a video call. You can use it for both office meetings as well as a quick friendly call.
Going to the site starts a new room for yourself. Share that room’s URL with others, and they can join in. At a time, up to six participants can chat. The URL works with both desktop and mobile browsers that support WebRTC, which is pretty much all modern browsers.
ItsHello even includes basic screen sharing, where you can share your full screen or a particular app alone. This is helpful when you want to guide someone through the steps of an app’s settings, as you can demonstrate it on the screen.
2. Roundee (Web): Video Conference Recording and Timestamped Notes
For a quick face-to-face meeting, ItsHello is a nice solution. But professional environments need more features. Roundee is the best free video conference app for office meetings, given the things it lets you do in the free account.
The most impressive features are meeting recording and notes. The host can record the entire video call for up to one hour, for free. The hour-long call can be downloaded too. These recordings are available for up to three months.
During the call, the host can also press Alt+N to add notes, which can serve as minutes of the meeting or point to important timestamps so you know when a discussion was held. The recording and the notes can be shared with others after the call.
Roundee allows for up to six people on a single video call, invited via your own URL. It includes support for screen-sharing, has a built-in whiteboard, and you can share files as well. It also integrates with Slack, if you use that for your team chat.
3. Jitsi Meet (Web, Android, iOS): Best Free Video Conference Alternative to Appear.in
. But Jitsi’s fairly new off-shoot, Jitsi Meet, is simpler, easier, and perhaps a better video conference app altogether. So much so that I think it’s even better than Appear.in.
You don’t need to sign up to use Jitsi Meet, creating a new room in an instant. Share the URL with others for them to join, and add a password if you want to protect it. Jitsi Meet has a lot of cool features in it, including video recording to Dropbox. This obviously eats into your Dropbox space, but it’s free video recording like Roundee, minus the timestamped notes.
Jitsi Meet also integrates with YouTube so you can start a live stream or watch a video together. The “raise hand” feature lets you draw attention to yourself when you want to speak up without interrupting the current speaker. The moderator has additional options like making new participants start on mute or hidden.
Jitsi Meet focuses on calendar integration. Add your Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook Calendar to schedule Jitsi Meet calls on it. You can even start the call from within the calendar app.
4. ProfiConf (Web): Free Video Conference for Large Groups of up to 25
Most free video conference tools limit the call to four or six participants. If you have a larger group, ProfiConf allows for up to 25 participants in one video conference on the free plan, going up to 250 people on the premium plan.
There’s an obvious worry about speed and lag with so many people, but Proficonf prides itself on its ability to work on slow connections. Other features include file-sharing, screen-sharing, and whiteboard. Hosts can also start a presentation slideshow for others to see in the meeting.
5. Houseparty (Chrome, Android, iOS): For Friendly Video Conferences
Houseparty is a video calling app that is a social network in itself. The idea is to start a video call with your friends and leave the room open so your friends or their friends can join in. If you want it to be a private call, you can lock the room too.
The app changes the approach to group video calls by taking out the “scheduling” aspect of it. If two of your friends are on a video call, Houseparty will send you an alert. You’re free to join in, or ignore it and get on with your day. It makes group video calls as casual as group chat, so you can start and finish calls without too much fanfare.
Houseparty has a few cool features in it to engage you to spend more time in the app. You can host a game of entertainment trivia, for example, and challenge your friends. When a friend of a friend pops into the chat, you might just make a new friend given your common interests.
You can’t use it for office video conferences and other professional purposes, but Houseparty is great for friends who are looking to have more face-time together.
In the above list, ItsHello and Jitsi Meet are even more convenient since they don’t require you to sign up or download anything. Pop the URL into a browser tab and you’re ready to start the call. It doesn’t matter if your friend or client doesn’t have the same software.
Cisco is talking up new artificial intelligence (AI) features designed to streamline Webex meetings. The updates unveiled last week bolster the company’s voice-activated Webex Assistant and a service that collates publicly available data to brief users ahead of a meeting.
During a keynote at the Enterprise Connect industry conference, Amy Chang, Cisco’s vice president in charge of collaboration, said the AI-driven features add “intelligence and context” to Webex.
“This technology is going to fundamentally change how we are able to deliver massively personalized experiences and transform how we work,” said Chang.
Chang joined Cisco last year following the acquisition of the business intelligence startup she founded, Accompany, for $270 million.
Accompany’s data analytics technology is behind one of the new features. People Insights creates profiles of individuals and organizations to help prepare for meetings without scouring the web for information. It involves pulling in relevant information such as a person’s recently published work or a company’s stock price to present within Webex. The information is refreshed automatically, keeping profiles up to date.
There are currently profiles on 250 million people, as well as 20 million companies.
Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst of ZK Research, called the features “very useful” for enterprise customers. “People Insights can help workers prepare for meetings much faster as it gives them some context as to who they are talking to,” he said.
“Businesses are trying to deliver more personalized experiences…. This lets business professionals accomplish that without having to spend hours and hours doing Google searches and searching other sources of information.”
People Insights is currently available as a trial, with general availability expected in June.
Webex Assistant updates
There were also updates to Cisco’s Webex Assistant. It was launched back in 2017 as Spark Assistant, following Cisco’s $125 million acquisition of MindMeld’s conversational AI technology that same year. Webex Assistant lets users start and end meetings, place phone calls and more, using voice commands.
One of the new features, Proactive Join, is designed to cut the time spent on setting up meetings. It recognizes that a meeting participant has entered a conference room using Cisco “intelligent proximity” technology to detect the person’s smartphone. Once it figures out a participant’s identity, the voice assistant asks whether they want to join a scheduled Webex meeting.
Another feature, First Match, makes it easier to start a voice or video call by guessing who a user is most likely to contact. If there are numerous people called “James” at a large organization, for example, Webex Assistant can figure out who to contact given a user’s previous interactions and professional connections. In early trials of the First Match feature, Webex offered users its top three guesses, but its top pick was frequently accurate so it only serves up the first option.
Such features will help cut down on the time spent on tedious and repetitive steps before a meeting, said Jon Arnold, principal analyst at J Arnold & Associates.
“It is all about automating and eliminating small steps in the meeting process to make it more streamlined,” said Arnold. “If you can shave 10 seconds off of a meeting and you have 10 people coming into the room it all adds up and you spend less time in the meeting.”
First Match is available across Cisco’s Webex Room Series, while Proactive Join will be rolled out in June. A facial recognition feature, used to identify participants in a video meeting, will also launch in June.
Cisco is not alone in adding AI-based features to collaboration and communication products. Cisco’s main rival in the market, Microsoft, has unveiled a range of features within its Teams collaboration app (which has replaced Skype for Business Online) such as real-time translation, transcription and background blur. The company has also focused on collating various sources of information from its suite of applications.
“All of the major vendors are trying to be more contextual,” said Kerravala. “Microsoft is using Microsoft data to do this including Office, Exchange and LinkedIn data. Cisco is using a combination of public data as well as Webex information. The vision of simplifying meetings is similar but the approaches are different.
“Time will tell who wins, but all of this innovation is great for the worker.”