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Cisco to acquire Voicea for AI voice transcription in Webex

Cisco plans to acquire Voicea in order to integrate its AI voice transcription engine with Webex. Many competing video conferencing vendors support integrations with the startup.

Through its planned acquisition of Voicea, Cisco will add an AI voice transcription engine to the Webex cloud while also undercutting competing video conferencing providers that support integrations with the startup. The deal, announced Tuesday, is expected to close by the end of October.

Cisco will use Voicea's platform to provide real-time transcription throughout the Webex suite -- first in Webex Meetings and later in Webex Calling and Webex Contact Center. The startup's AI assistant, known as EVA, also generates meeting summaries and highlights items that require follow-up.

Cisco has sought to make "cognitive collaboration" -- a term for AI features ranging from facial recognition to computer-generated profiles of meeting attendees -- a main selling point of its collaboration products. But the vendor still relies on third parties for voice transcription, a gap the Voicea acquisition will fill.

Cisco plans to offer voice transcription and other basic services at no additional charge to Webex subscribers, but customers will need to pay a premium to access some of Voicea's more advanced features. That's as much detail as the company is prepared to share at this point, Sri Srinivasan, the general manager of Webex, said.

Voicea, formerly known as Voicera, currently runs on the infrastructure of one of the leading public cloud providers. Cisco will move the startup's technology to the Webex cloud, a global network of more than two dozen data centers that Srinivasan said would be able to better secure the meeting records generated by Voicea.

Cisco expects to use its existing AI capabilities to improve Voicea. For example, Webex added facial recognition earlier this year; that feature could be paired with Voicea to help identify who is speaking in meeting transcripts.

Voicea also integrates with roughly 20 task management and collaboration products, including Slack, Microsoft Teams, Confluence, Zendesk, Trello and Zapier. Users can command EVA to create tasks, set reminders and share links into those third-party apps.

"It's reasonable to think that other applications integrated into Cisco, whether they be workflow or office suites, will also be able to benefit with the Voicea features … turning the acquisition into a significant differentiator for Cisco's user base," said Wayne Kurtzman, analyst at IDC.

Voicea to sever ties with other video apps

Srinivasan confirmed that Cisco plans to eventually end Voicea's support for competing online meetings apps. "We will be happy to shrink-wrap a free license to those customers to Webex," he said.

Voicea is available to users of all major video conferencing apps as an optional add-on. Many of those vendors, including Microsoft and Zoom, provide their own transcription services. But others, such as BlueJeans and Lifesize, rely exclusively on partnerships with third parties, including Voicea, and Reason8.

Voicea is the only transcription service available to BlueJeans customers. The company is in the early stages of testing Google and other third-party services, a company spokesperson said.

The ability to derive insights from meetings using AI will become a significant differentiator in the collaboration market over the next few years, said Adam Preset, analyst at Gartner.

"Webex customers won't have to scramble around looking to add extra AI tools to win in the struggle with meetings," Preset said. "The help will be baked into the platform they'll already be using."

Founded in 2016, Voicea has received more than $20 million in startup funding, led by the venture capital firm, according to Crunchbase. The investment arms of Cisco, Microsoft and Salesforce were all early financial backers of the company, incorporated as Rizio Inc.

Voicea's CEO and co-founder, Omar Tawakol, previously founded the marketing data platform BlueKai, which was acquired by Oracle in 2014. The company declined an interview request, referring questions to Cisco. 

The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

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