Cisco announced plans Thursday to bring voice control to its Cisco Spark Room series hardware, the first step in a larger plan to make an AI-powered meeting assistant available across all Cisco hardware. The Cisco Spark Assistant uses natural language processing and machine learning to understand what a person wants by harnessing technology from MindMeld, the AI startup Cisco acquired in May for $125 million.

The assistant will be available in early 2018, first packaged with the Cisco Spark Room 70. With a 70-inch LED screen, the single Room 70 costs $55,900 without a monthly subscription, while a dual Room 70 can be had for $79,900.

The Room 70 follows the release earlier this year of the Spark Board 55, a whiteboard with a 55-inch LED screen that goes for about $5,000.

Initial deployment of Cisco Spark Assistant will include things like the ability to start and end meetings, make calls, and control Cisco endpoints.

Future features will enable users to find and reserve meeting rooms, record meetings, or (presumably with more MindMeld conversational AI knowledge) take meeting notes and send attendees highlights. When someone says “Hey Spark, start the meeting,” the assistant will use facial recognition to understand who is in attendance, as well as confirming things like calendar time and all the employees invited to attend the meeting.

The goal over time is to make these assistants and bots a regular part of meetings, using AI and data to answer questions about things like business performance or other metrics. By ruling the meeting room, Cisco intends to be a dominant force in the AI-driven workplace of the future, Jason Goecke, the VP leading the Spark Platform, said in a blog post.

“At first, AI meeting bots will reduce the cognitive load we put into the mechanics of being in a meeting. People will be able to focus on what’s important: being in the meeting,” said Cisco IoT general manager Rowan Trollope in a Chatbots Magazine post. “But that’s just the start. Meeting bots will begin to do things for us that we can’t do ourselves. They will eventually anticipate our needs and understand interpersonal and even company-wide dynamics.”

This week’s announcement continues the expansion of Cisco Spark platform services, which now include a line of video and voice meeting hardware, as well as the Cisco Spark chat app.

The promise of an intuitive meeting assistant from Cisco makes the Room 70 one of the first whiteboards to include voice control, though its price tag is higher than that of most other whiteboard for enterprise collaborations on the market today.

And companies are increasingly targeting enterprise customers with tools for presentations, whiteboard brainstorms, and video conferences.

Ricoh’s whiteboard has used IBM Watson for voice commands for about a year.

Google’s Jamboard does not use Google Assistant but is bundled with G Suite apps and starts at around $5,000. Microsoft’s Surface Tab doesn’t work with Cortana but has access to things like Office and Azure Cloud. The Surface Tab is available in 55-inch and 84-inch models, and the larger of the two can cost more than $30,000.

What makes Cisco Spark Assistant so interesting in a field now populated by Microsoft, Facebook, and Slack is its many hardware endpoints already established in conference rooms around the world.

In fact, Cisco Spark Assistant, which harnesses WebEx video meetings, Cisco Spark chat app, and Cisco endpoints, is already in more than 200,000 business customers’ meeting rooms.

That could help Cisco Spark Assistant and the Cisco Spark chat app room hold their own against popular services like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Facebook’s Workplace Chat, which came to desktop computers this week. Cisco declined to state the number of monthly active users currently using Cisco Spark.

AI assistant chat wars in the workplace

Cisco cannot afford to rest on its laurels, however, as other AI assistants are already storming hardware inside businesses.

With the launch of the Harman Kardon Invoke last month, Microsoft is beginning to roll out its software development kit so Cortana can be found in more smart speakers or other kinds of hardware. Cortana lead and Microsoft VP Andrew Shuman told VentureBeat that enterprise skills for Cortana by Microsoft are in the works.

At launch, Invoke will only bring intelligence that serves up email and calendar insights from Outlook and Office 365 accounts, and the company is working to incorporate LinkedIn intelligence in order to give users better context ahead of meetings. The Microsoft Surface Hub may lack Cortana, but the 28-inch Surface Studio can speak with the intelligent assistant and starts at $3,000.

Following the Alexa-Cortana partnership struck this summer, we don’t yet know all the details of how Cortana will be incorporated into Echo devices, but having Cortana in every Echo could mean the series of smart speakers is incorporated into more workplaces. Alexa has also begun infiltrating meeting rooms through integrations with hardware from companies like Crestron, meeting schedule software maker Teem, and an integration with Atlassian’s HipChat last fall.

At VB Summit last month, Alexa VP Al Lindsay talked about a goal to make Alexa available everywhere, including in the workplace.

Startups are getting in on the action, as well. Meeting Owl, a speaker and 360-degree camera for $799 that came out of Andy Rubin’s Playground Ventures, can connect with popular video chat software like Zoom and Skype, uses facial recognition, and may incorporate voice control in the future.

Finally, Facebook is said to be making a video chat device that’s reportedly due out in early 2018, and since Facebook features are regularly integrated into Workplace, it’s reasonable to believe such a device could come to Workplace by Facebook customers.

As tech players battle each other to bring chat solutions to consumers and businesses, the equation for success may not look the same for every company. Those with no existing foothold have to convince customers to make the first buy, whereas companies with a fleet of existing hardware can make a dongle for communication with an AI assistant.

Samsung, which is beginning to make Bixby available in all its devices, will start with SmartTVs  and Family Hub refrigerators but is also working on a low-price dongle that has a microphone and chipset and can plug into existing Samsung hardware to speak with AI assistant Bixby.

We don’t yet know if businesses, like households, will get one AI assistant and stick with it. If that’s the case, adoption could end up mattering more than purchase of premium hardware.

If Cisco really wants to take advantage of its existing foothold, it should find ways to quickly spread Spark Assistant beyond just integrating it with a whiteboard that costs tens of thousands of dollars. Otherwise, Cisco could cede ground to a field of competitors ready to make their own pitch in the conference room.

Updated 5:59 pm Nov. 8: Correction: The original version of this story stated that the Cisco Spark Room 55 is a whiteboard but should have said Cisco Spark Board 55. VB regrets any confusion this may have caused.