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Rid Your Meetings of Dogs and Doorbells

- August 10, 2017 - 36 Comments

Love them or hate them, meetings are important. They’re a big part of how we get work done, how we run our business, and how we collaborate. And if you’re like me, you’re in meetings a lot, which is OK by me since I run Cisco’s WebEx business!

But there is one thing that drives us here at Cisco crazy about meetings. In fact, we were bothered by it so much that we took it upon ourselves to do something about it.

What was it? Background noise: keyboard clicking, dog barking, doorbell ringing. And then there was the potato chip guy… munch, munch, munch. Incredibly annoying! Beyond being annoying, it turns out that background noise can affect your concentration.

“Researchers have found that environmental noise—background music, city sounds, people’s conversations—leads to a decrease in performance for most people,” according to Fast Company. “But the good news is that many of those sounds are easy to tune out, making even small reductions likely to improve our effectiveness.”

Certain types of background noise are OK depending on the situation. Nature sounds can actually help me focus on a specific task. But, add chirping birds to a meeting, and I will not have the same positive reaction. Unwanted background noise is very distracting. You can lose your train of thought. It can impact the point of your presentation. Or worse, you can come across as unprofessional.

WebEx recognizes knocking, typing, sirens, and barking dogs. Once detected, it prompts you to mute your microphone. That’s it. Simple.

We wanted to fix this problem. Well, at least for WebEx participants – we can’t help you with the person sitting next to you with the potato chip obsession. So our engineers got to work. Using machine learning, WebEx can now detect background noise and prompt you to mute your microphone if you have called into the meeting from your computer. Lots of innovation for a small feature but with huge benefits!

Coming in the next couple of weeks, sounds like knocking, typing, sirens, and barking dogs are classified as background noise by WebEx. Once detected, you’re prompted with a pop-up message to mute your audio and microphone. That’s it. Simple.

With more people sending audio through WebEx than any other online meeting service, we have built up a thorough understanding of the most common (and annoying) forms of background noise. We use artificial intelligence to examine the meeting audio and pattern-match it against these known annoyances. The result is the simple, but powerful suggestion, that maybe you’d like to mute your microphone. You’re welcome.

So, when you’re “that guy” and you realize that you need to mute, do you mute your headset, or mute the WebEx app? And when you need to speak up – do you remember which one you used? We addressed that, too. Now you can mute and unmute your headset and desktop audio at the same time. With just one click, you can jump back into the conversation without any hassle. No more starting to talk and hearing someone say “are you still on mute?” just as you were getting to the good part.

By making meetings less distracting, meetings become more focused, and therefore, more effective. And since we all have plenty of other things to do, a focused, effective meeting experience can only help us be more productive.

What’s next you ask? Besides muting the potato chip guy, our engineers are finding new ways every day to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to make meetings better. This is our humble – but extremely valuable – start to seeing a generation of “smart meetings.”

Learn more about WebEx and the new features.

 

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36 Comments

  1. Cool - can't wait to try it

  2. That's a novel and creative use of ML, well done. Now for your next challenge can I have the meeting transcribed, summarized, and available on demand?

  3. Awesome!! Most all of us have been on both ends of this during important meetings! Nice advancement!!

  4. Thank you for posting such a helpful article!

  5. This is a great feature - thanks for adding it. I have another suggestion for implementing a feature in WebEx that I have recently got in my new cordless Plantronics headset. It's a "mute warning". If the headset's microphone detects that I am talking while I have its mute button switched on, it whispers a message into my headset's earphones reminding me that I am on mute, and suggesting that I might want to unmute myself. Now I recognize that not everyone is suddenly going to rush out an buy such a headset, but this same functionality *could* be implemented in WebEx ... provided the user used the WebEx mute function rather than the mute function on their local phone/headset. The WebEx team would need to advertise this feature prominently so that users migrated to using WebEx mute rather than local mute, but if it were adopted widely we'd also get rid of the inevitable deathly silences followed by a "sorry, I forgot I was on mute". I don't think I've ever been on a WebEx when at least one person has ended up talking into their mute button! Combining this feature and the WebEx automute on annoying background noise would make a really powerful combination.

  6. Great development in the right direction. There is an uncountable number of background noise types, that could have impact to meetings' quality. Maybe there's a way of real time analyzation of any sound that comes to the micro, and the SW/machine filters for your voice and lets this through only? I (dog owner) am really looking forward to these features :-)

  7. IF the AI can detect the sound, why can't it filter it out automatically, instead of muting completely?

  8. How cool is this! Super, super helpful. Thanks so much to you and your team :)

  9. Super Like!!!

  10. Awesome update Jens!

    Nice job Jens..so funny and yet so true!

  11. This is great news. I wish I could click on a "Like"button on the article, but will settle for leaving you and your team a big "Thanks!" for improving the Webex Meeting experience.

  12. In the case of a user who is not paying attention to their webex session screen (such as doing other work, etc.) or perhaps has physically stepped away from their session, suggest a slight modification to this feature ... Instead, have the dialog box state something like: "We're detecting background noise from your microphone ... Please mute your mic and/or push the 'Got It / Thank you !' button below." "Otherwise, if we don't get a response from you in the next 15-seconds, the system will mute your line." :-)

      I agree that a pop up dialog would be better. We will test the feature for a few months and then adjust as needed. Jens

  13. That's awesome! Thank you. And don't forget about leaf blowers. That's one of the most obnoxious background sounds out there.

  14. this is super - can't wait to see it in action! that's gotta save $ by not wasting time discussing who's line is that? What I'd really like is to be able to have Voice Distinction so that my audio is recognized, even if I am in a room with other people (instead of room-phone with host ID).

  15. Well, for those who attend meetings from India, the challenges are not just dogs. Car/Bike horns, 24x7x365 The street vendors shouting out their items The kids screaming/playing on the streets The baby in the neighboring house crying, loudly The lady next door running her blender at full speed The grandpa upstairs ringing bells during his prayers Telephone ringing in the next room All these sounds come through clearly during the webex meetings. Would love to see all those noises suppressed :)

  16. This is AWESOME. I'd be happy if it automuted people too :) Next up - can you modulate the audio so that the really loud people are softened and the really soft ones are louder so we aren't diving for the volume button all the time? Great ideas!

      Those are great ideas. Auto-mute and noise leveling.

  17. That's great. But I keep my mic muted anytime I am not talking. What I need is some kind of force field so that the dogs don't telepathically know every time I need to unmute. They are uncanny about starting up just as I have to talk :-)

      Dave -- I used to blame my dog, but I think there's a sentry squirrel that watches me in my office. When I reach to unmute, he signals his squirrel buddies to antagonize the dog.

    This is great! I would add to the potato chips eater ... the Darth Vader breather...!

      Or the "I have a cold and cough directly into the mic". Ear splitting.

  18. +1 And you might want to consider adding lawn mowers and leaf blowers. I work at home on the day that our gardener comes so I can get our dogs out of the back yard. And, it never fails...I'm always jumping on a WebEx whenever he shows up.

  19. This is an excellent feature. Love to see it in action

  20. Love this Jens! Can't wait to see it in action!

  21. Now if only we could filter out comments that don't make sense! That would be AI :-) In all seriousness, it's great seeing innovation that makes collaboration more seamless.

  22. Hi Jens, Will the NEW WebEx artificial intelligence use pattern matching for someone's MUSIC ON HOLD which comes on when they take a call while listening to a WebEx call and also mute them?

      thank you Dave T for your interest. The approach we have taken is to implement the voice detection client side. The first release will detect non-voice patterns originating from the desktop client. We are evaluating server side detection down the road. I hope that helps. Jens

  23. Hi Jens. Great article and great innovation from WebEx. We love the direction Cisc is headed.

    Good to see these improvements in webex

    Hi Jens, great job from you and your team. Cisco @ Collaboration the next step to the future. Perfect..;-)

  24. Good to see others bring this technology out. Other vendors have had this for a while. Great in busy environments.

  25. Great new feature Jens. The technology is fantastic, but it's still just people using it. More efficient muting is a great help especially for Mr Potato Chip.

    This is indeed a very helpful feature! Happy to see this innovation in webex

  26. Jens this may just be the coolest feature we have developed yet! I am very excited about this announcement.

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