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Get up close and personal with Project Spring Roll

Cisco's prototype adds 'augmented collaboration' tools to high-end video-conferencing experience

At the annual "Cisco Live" event in San Francisco late last month, Cisco Systems unveiled to the public its "Project Spring Roll", which is the next generation of augmented collaboration that gives users a feeling of teleconferencing, or being in the same place at the same time.

People 'attending' such a meeting can see a participant from the other side from head to toe - not just their head and shoulders. In fact, they can see everybody in the room, their body language and reactions, as well as the environment they are in.

Spring Roll's augmented collaboration is a seamless integration of video communication and interactive content collaboration - an integration of and added to the functions of Cisco's TelePresence and WebEx products.

The meeting between people in each of the rooms equipped with a video wall made of touch screens and video cameras can also be joined by others, via teleconferencing using browsers or by mobile phone. The video walls are aligned in an L-shape to fit the corners of the room.

Meeting participants can interact on the content noted or drawn on the panel of touch screens, which both sides can see. They can add to or erase content written by the other side.

"In a meeting, sometimes you look at the whiteboard, sometimes you look at each other. Spring Roll enables you to do that [virtually]," said Susie Wee, Cisco's vice president and chief technology officer of Networked Experience.

Instead of walking to the screens, the meeting participants can choose to interact via mobile devices such as tablet PCs.

Besides the whiteboard feature, they can share documents, slides, photos, charts and graphics, as well as video.

To facilitate brainstorming, the developers have added a sticky-notes feature, which participants can virtually write on and send to the central screen. Different colours can be chosen for each sticky note, and they can be rearranged or regrouped on the screen.

Meanwhile, slide presentation via Spring Roll is touch-friendly, unlike Power Point, which requires a mouse and keyboard, she said.

"We also want the collaboration to be pervasive for everybody, so we have actually gone for the browser in the boardroom. Likewise, we are making it a more immersive experience. We also have a regular conference room for working on your mobile. We have a WebEx-Telepresence collaboration. We've moved to cloud-based architecture. What we want to do is actually allow more end-points," said Wee.

Spring Roll document-sharing, sticky notes and whiteboarding are all in the cloud.

The personal touch

Cisco has also allowed for finer points of personal detail to be enhanced. For example, as the system allows participants who would be seen only from head to shoulders, the positions of where their faces would be seen on the central screen - and the sizes of the faces - are automatically adjusted not to make them look like scary giants.

Finger and hand gestures have also been designed to communicate with the screen, such as switching from the whiteboard feature to presentation or calling the next slides.

There are one-finger taps and press-and-hold features, while using two or five fingers gives different results.

"What you saw on iPads earlier was like pressing and holding. For sticky notes at the corner, I press and hold it and drag it down to share it. We worked very hard to find out what the gestures should be, as users' experience is very important and we want the users to like to use it," said the executive.

Audio commands were also tried, but were taken out due to the fact that capturing people's voices during an actual discussion might confuse the machine and lead to an unintended slide or page change, she added.

Meeting participants can also save the information written during a discussion.

"If it's on whiteboard, you would have taken the picture of the whiteboard and e-mailed it to yourself. We can automate that," said Wee, who was standing at the central screen during the demo.

Showing a picture can be done by just a swipe on the screen, while other participants can also do that with their mobile devices, she explained.

Intelligent proximity, via which the holders of mobile devices can easily join in the meeting by getting up close, is an interesting additional feature, while telepresence speaker trackers, through which the cameras find a presence, capture a picture and follow what the speaker as saying, is another example of added features, she said.

The speaker tracker mentioned by Wee was also shown at the Cisco Live "World of Solutions" exhibition.

Virtual classroom

Also demonstrated was a smart virtual classroom, where the lighting and equipment automatically responds to the preference of the instructor or teacher.

The virtual classroom is a distance-learning solution with interactive audio, video and Web conferencing features.

To promote students' participation and engagement in the classroom, video cameras detect the speaker from many factors, including face, eyes and gestures, and then automatically zoom in on the person.

At the moment, Android apps are compatible for use with Spring Roll, and Wee and other participants demonstrated how to play "Angry Bird" from a number of locations at the same time.

However, the Spring Roll project is still at the prototype stage and Cisco has not yet decided whether to proceed to production. It is part of the Cisco Tech Fund, under which the US giant gives US$10 million (Bt325 million) for research in the field of innovation.

While the code name Spring Roll gives a sense of Asia, it originated from the fact that this Cisco Tech Fund project was approved in the spring a few years ago.

The innovation team is based in Shanghai, while the second room is at Cisco's headquarters in San Jose, California. Susie Wee comes from South Korea.

With the possibility of reaching out to general consumers and not just businesses, the project still needs to develop further as the team tries to get more information about users' experience, its impact on them and what they think about it, and in what other cases or scenarios users would want to apply the system, so that the company can try to develop the technology in the right direction, Wee said.

Spring Roll is the first project under the Cisco Tech Fund that has been shown to the public. The room shown at Cisco Live, which was the third augmented-collaboration room of its kind, was set up for temporary exhibition.

The writer's trip to the Cisco Live 2014 event in San Francisco was sponsored by Cisco Systems.


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