I have been an avid Spark user, ever since it was in beta as Project Squared. At first, I couldn’t understand why this was a big deal. But two years later, it is the core collaboration technology I use to get work done across my business unit.

My day begins and ends with Spark. All my teams are on Spark. All my projects are on Spark. All my pipeline management tools and dashboards are on Spark. All my audio and video calls are on Spark. You get where I’m coming from; I live in Spark.

Even though Spark is still fairly young for an enterprise technology, it has certainly come a long way in a short period of time. Sure, it allows you to make enterprise-grade audio and video calls, but it also integrates via Spark Hybrid Services to connect to your enterprise calling system. This means Spark is now your desk phone; anyone can reach you via your work extension. And because of all the integration with Apple, your Spark calls are completely native to your iPhone. Life was good for the last 12 months, but Cisco is just getting started.

Getting Started with Cisco Spark Board

Today, Cisco introduced their much-anticipated Spark Board product, an all-in-one cloud-based digital whiteboard with video conferencing. Has this been done before? Of course it has, but there are some major differences that will become apparent when you take Spark Board for a spin.

First of all, the Board knows all about Spark, and Spark knows all about the Board. When you walk into a room, it greets you with a ‘Hello’ on the screen. As soon as you pull out your smartphone, you see the Board available as a video device in Spark just like you would see any of the DX, SX or MX Spark-connected endpoints.

You can dial a number, a URL or start a meeting with one click, and the board automatically dials for you. You can also open up an existing Spark Room and invite the board to it with one click, which unlocks all the shared files in the room, all the people and the ability to share the whiteboard live. Awesome.

If you don’t have your smartphone handy, you can also just walk up to the board and start whiteboarding, or call someone in your Spark directory. The camera is 4K. The screen is 4K. Everything is crisp and clear, including the new UI, which is fresh, uncomplicated and easy to follow.

A Fantastic Audio and Visual Experience

But the experience is really what matters, and Cisco has delivered with Spark Board. The audio quality is fantastic, not just for those in the room, but for the remote participants as well. Ever since I started testing Spark Board for the last few months, people have been surprised at how good the audio quality is, even while I’m walking around the room or just sitting at my desk 7 feet away. This is mostly due to the beam-forming mic arrays that are in Spark Board, which really do a fantastic job.

Now about that 4K camera ̶ while its 4K, it’s not actually transmitting in 4k. But the camera allows Spark Board to capture as many pixels as possible and send the best video frame back to all the remote participants. When you are looking at the Board, remote participants dialing in from endpoints show up in a circle, which ripples out visually when the person is talking. When entire rooms, Spark Boards or room units dial in, they show up in something that looks like a Beats Pill, which is a really great visual.

In particular, I love the fact that when I connect Spark Board to an existing room, like a 1:1 or Project Room, every file that has ever been shared in that room shows up like magic. You can flip through slides or zoom in a doc while on the Board.

Whiteboarding, Whoa

But the hallmark features that blew me away were the whiteboarding tools. Sure, it’s a digital whiteboard. Yes it’s a 4K screen. But when you connect Spark Board to a Spark Room ̶ you can now share your whiteboard. What this means is that people on the remote end, or even in the same room, on iPads, iPhones, Macs, PCs, Androids, etcetera, can watch you whiteboard live in pure digital form. But they can also whiteboard along with you. Yes ̶ all those people on remote devices can add to your whiteboard drawing and collaborate together in real-time. That right there, is pretty amazing.

What’s even better? That whiteboard is automatically saved in your Spark Room, so you can always go back to view it or edit it at any given time. Whoa (As Neo would say in The Matrix).

My Cisco Spark Board Wishlist

Obviously we’d like to ask for a lot more features (and believe me we have), but the good news is that Spark Board is in the cloud, which means feature updates happen frequently, just like the Spark App.

Two of the things that we’d like to see are the ability to annotate and modify documents in real-time ̶ such as PowerPoint, Word, etc. But that’s a tall order given the way files are shared and fully encrypted end-to-end on Spark Message. Another useful feature would be the ability to share content to all users in the meeting, directly from the Spark Room’s files feature. The reality is that all these features take time, and I’m sure we’ll see a lot more in the coming months on Spark Board.

So there you have it; there’s the skinny on Cisco Spark Board. It has instantly become a complete extension of our workstyle and, like I said earlier, they are only getting started. Expect to see a lot more from the Spark platform in 2017; this is definitely the future of Cisco Collaboration, delivered today.

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