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Cisco lays groundwork for augmented reality in Cisco Webex app

This month, the 135 million Cisco Webex app users will get access to a refreshed UI, as the vendor is ramping up to support more advanced video use cases, such as augmented reality.

An overhaul of the back-end infrastructure and user interface of the Cisco Webex app, rolling out this month, lays the groundwork for the vendor to expand support for augmented reality, virtual reality and other advanced video-centric technologies.

The redesign, which will be released throughout August, prioritizes video and simplifies scheduling, calendar management and in-meeting controls. Beyond that, the vendor has enhanced the cloud infrastructure that powers the video conferencing platform.

The announcement is the result of years of platform work that will allow the Cisco Webex app to better use the public cloud in conjunction with its private cloud video infrastructure, said Sri Srinivasan, vice president and general manager of the vendor's team collaboration group.

"We're putting the plumbing together for intelligent [video] experiences across the board," Srinivasan said. "I don't think we're ready to talk about everything AR/VR [augmented reality and virtual reality] on Webex yet, but think of it as the base plumbing."

In April, Cisco announced that Apple iOS users would be able to share augmented reality files during meetings within the Cisco Webex app. A team of architects could use the feature to view -- and edit in real time -- a three-dimensional blueprint of a building they were designing, for example.

Cisco also recently began a beta partnership with startup Atheer Inc. to let Webex customers use that vendor's AR platform, which is compatible with AR smart glasses from vendors such as Microsoft and Toshiba.

A field worker wearing smart glasses could use Atheer's software to share a video feed of his or her current view to a meeting within the Cisco Webex app. Team members could then upload documents or drawings to the worker's smart glasses to help solve a problem.

Cisco has been at the vanguard of combining immersive technologies with collaboration apps, analysts said. Microsoft has also taken steps to add AR to its collaboration portfolio. This spring, Microsoft released previews of two new AR apps for Microsoft HoloLens that integrate with Microsoft Teams.

"Microsoft, with HoloLens, is quite prominent these days, and they have a set of specialized applications," said Adam Preset, analyst at Gartner. "Cisco will have opened up options to do the same with the Atheer partnership, but they'll also have brought AR into a common application people use every day in Webex."

Augmented reality use cases limited, but expanding

So far, augmented reality has seen the most adoption in the fields of healthcare, oil and gas production, and manufacturing, said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. But the technology would be useful in any vertical with a high proportion of field workers and significant visualization needs, he said.

By 2019, 20% of large enterprises are expected to have evaluated and adopted augmented reality, virtual reality or mixed reality technology, according to projections by Gartner. Field services, logistics, training and analytics are the most common uses cases in the enterprise market at this point, according to the firm.

Immersive commerce could soon become a typical use case of augmented reality, said Marty Resnick, analyst at Gartner. Customer service agents could use AR tools to help customers fix a problem they are having at home with a product.

IDC predicted global spending on augmented and virtual reality technologies will grow at a compound annual rate of 71.6% between 2017 and 2022. Consumers will drive most of that growth, but the verticals of retail, transportation and manufacturing are also expected to ramp up investments in such products.

"Expect more consumer and business applications to leverage AR. And within seven years, it will just be another part of the conference, marketing and business collaboration stack," said Wayne Kurtzman, analyst at IDC.

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