Most people have become all too familiar this year with the frustrations of working from home: that coworker on the conference calls who types loudly and can’t figure out the mute button; the missed meeting because your home internet went on the fritz; and “hopping on a quick call” with colleagues when setting up the call takes longer than the conversation.
Cisco (CSCO) on Tuesday introduced a host of new features for Webex, its video conferencing software, aimed at improving the WFH experience. They include a tool that creates meeting highlights on verbal command, a mechanism for easily converting a phone call to a video call and others.
The announcement of new features follows news Monday that Cisco plans to acquire two companies whose products will help bolster its virtual workplace offerings. Slido is a Slovakia-based startup that provides user engagement features such as Q&As and surveys for web meetings and virtual events. And IMImobile, is a British software firm that helps companies connect with customers through interactive online channels.
Prior to the pandemic, videoconferencing and other remote working tools were a rather dull, stagnant area of tech. This year, they’ve become a crucial lifeline for conducting business, holding government hearings, running online classrooms and hosting religious services and enabling communications in many other areas of life.
Even once it is safe to return to the office — whenever that may be — remote working technology will likely continue to be a significant growth area. Many companies plan to institute a hybrid model of in-office and remote working, and some say they’ll give employees the option to work from home permanently.
Not surprisingly, competition in the remote working tech space has become fierce. Zoom (ZM) has become a huge success — to “zoom” is now a verb, whether or not people referring to that specific platform. Cisco is also up against other leading firms such as Microsoft (MSFT)’s Teams and Verizon (VZ)’s BlueJeans, creating greater urgency for Webex to up its game with new features to stay competitive.
“If you think about the core identity of the product, the capabilities we’re going to build, they’re going to be around making sure that we actually level the playing field and become much more inclusive,” Jeetu Patel, Cisco’s senior vice president of security and applications, said on a call with analysts and reporters Tuesday. “Some of the capabilities that we’re going to talk about today, no one else has … our focus on productivity and well being will be a big one.”
Patel added that the company has poured around $1 billion over the past several years into developing AI capabilities, and the fruits of that investment now are “starting to come out in a big way.”
Here are a few of the new Webex features Cisco introduced Tuesday:
- Noise cancellation: The app will automatically “detect and suppress” common noises such as rustling papers and loud typing.
- Transcription: Webex will generate searchable transcripts of calls, making it easy to catch up if you’ve missed a meeting. It’s also adding closed captioning, which will will it easier for hearing impaired people to participate in virtual meetings.
- In-meeting gestures: Coming next year, meeting participants will be able to make a “thumbs up” with their hand and Webex’s AI will translate that motion into a thumbs up icon on the screen for everyone to see (helpful for people who have a hard time finding the buttons on the app).
- Real-time translation: Starting in February, you can listen in on a meeting where the speaker is using a different language and get real-time transcription. Each meeting participant can choose which language they want. The feature will be available in English, Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Dutch and Japanese.
- Meeting templates: Using the roundtable meeting template, for example, every participant will have the opportunity to speak once before anyone speaks twice. This feature is also coming soon.