Editor’s note: Cisco and Microsoft are clients of the author.
Cisco Webex and Arthur this week had events focused on each company’s collaboration approach. Cisco made a significant move to finally eliminate phones that can’t do video, attempting to do what AT&T promised to do back in the 1960s: move to video phones. While Cisco is using its dominance in traditional office telephony to drive change, Arthur focuses on mixed reality. Its goal: blend the way we used to meet with how we need to meet in a post-pandemic world.
Let’s talk about both of these approaches and what they may mean.
Flying cars vs. hybrids
In a way, the comparison between the two approaches is like comparing Ehang 184 (one of the few flying cars in advanced testing) and the Volvo XC60 hybrid I recently bought. While the Ehang 184 would be cool to own, its 25-minute flight time, the regulatory hurdles, and the cost make it far less practical — for now — than the Volvo, which is arguably the best hybrid SUV in the market. The Ehang represents a likely future, but the elements aren’t yet in place to make it viable. In contrast, you can use the XC60 today, and you don’t even have to worry about the limited charging infrastructure.
(Of course, if you could choose between the two for a commute, you’d likely take the Ehang once it’s mature and your trip falls within its flying range.)
Cisco is like Volvo in this example, Arthur is like Ehang. While its technology is cooler and more interesting, it lacks the critical aspects needed to replace Zoom, let alone your firm’s existing phone system. But just as the Ehang could one day be useful for short-hop, Uber-like services, Arthur makes sense for targeted collaboration systems.
The new Webex vs. Arthur
Cisco is attempting to blend videoconferencing, collaboration, and telephony into a single solution with one device that does all three on your desktop. Arthur takes the concept of physical meetings and makes them virtual. Cisco’s solution consists of a Cloud-based backend and either current PCs or smartphones, dedicated dual-use monitors, and a unique blended smartphone dock. Arthur’s solution is mostly a cloud backend and Occulus head-mounted hardware; it has compatibility issues at the moment with other VR hardware, and doesn’t even attempt to replace your desk phone.
Arthur creates an avatar based on a picture of you and then renders that avatar in a 3D virtual space where you can interact naturally with other avatars. It doesn’t blend well yet with the real world, relies on hardware mostly developed for gaming, not collaboration — because that’s what is available — and uses the headset’s cameras to mostly instrument the user. If you want to bring the real world into an Arthur virtual space, you have to scan it in, and any manipulation of that object will be limited.
Some AR-based solutions do a better job of marrying reality and meetings, but manipulation is usually more challenging and virtualized elements look less real. In short, for Arthur to meet its full potential, it needs far better hardware, better user instrumentation, more photo-realism (similar to what you have in top role-playing games, and an easier way to blend reality with Mixed Reality. A tool like Arthur, or Arthur itself, is likely the future of collaboration, but it has a far longer way to go to be a communications solution.
Cisco’s Webex is almost a direct plug-and-play replacement for the old office phone system. Webex is in use today, particularly in schools and governments, for collaboration and education — making it a far more viable solution for today. It now scales up to 100,000 people in broadcast mode; it provides instant record-keeping and language translation; and it gets dedicated hardware and services. Recent advances include short-term catch-up meetings, timed attendee rotations (ideal for boards and advisor pools), and features that allow users to have private side meetings during a larger event.
Cisco has also partnered with firms like RealWear, allowing users to bring the real world into a meeting more quickly. And AVA robotics allows a user to pair up with a robot to virtually teleport anywhere one of the robots can move physically.
Wrapping up: A divergence
In a way, Arthur is focused on how we used to meet and virtualizing it so we don’t have to meet in person anymore. Cisco is using technology to create more productive meetings based on existing technology. Neither approach is wrong. Each takes a different approach to solving what’s become on of the business issues of 2020 — keeping employees connected and meetings going.
Cisco’s Webex faces serious competition from products like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. At the same time, Arthur could be going down a dead-end road since changing behaviors render meetings as we knew them obsolete — virtualized or not. Virtualization, long term, will work best where you need to feel like you are someplace else, such as using Hololens to explore Mars using the video feed from the Mars Rover. But that requires a heavy blend of reality and simulation, making it more like virtual teleportation. That’s less about routine meetings and more about specialized tasks such as telemedicine or forensic investigations.
Tools like Arthur require headsets closer to the Varjo mixed-reality headset than the Occulus headset. (One of the better demonstrations of this future was occurred in 2016 by Microsoft.) It won’t make sense to do every meeting like this, but it would be far superior to Webex for specific video projects.
Conversely, because productivity is Cisco’s focus, Webex will likely be the more efficient solution for the forseeable future. Either way, the evolution of, and optimization around, collaboration and communication tools give companies a range of options to keep in mind when deciding how best to enhance the distributed workplace of our post-pandemic future.