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 Kervala. “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.”