As the manager of global event technology products at Cisco Systems Inc., Kelly Briley manages the team that evaluates and oversees event technologies for Cisco's marketing and sales events.
History is full of famous guides steering their charges through unknown and perilous terrain. Tenzing Norgay, for example, led Sir Edmund Hillary through the knife-like cold and bottomless crevasses of Mount Everest, and Sacagawea escorted the Lewis and Clark Expedition over the uncharted expanse from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean. But those were almost leisurely strolls to the corner store compared to what Kelly Briley had to accomplish for a crowd of nearly 30,000 attendees.
Briley, the manager of global event technology products at Cisco Systems Inc., was charged with improving the attendee experience for the 27,000 registrants coming to Orlando, FL, for Cisco
Live 2018, the San Jose, CA-based company's flagship customer/partner conference and trade show. The event's 30-year lifespan testifies to its success, but its relentlessly expanding size was fast creating new pressures that could easily result in a short circuit. Indeed, attendance had soared nearly 13,500 percent since its inception in 1989, when roughly 200 engineers and other IT professionals squeezed into a small conference room in Palo Alto, CA.
Furthermore, feedback accumulated via surveys from previous Cisco Lives, as well as the event's customer advisory board, pinpointed a mounting need for better user guidance. In particular, first-time guests reported they sometimes felt lost and overwhelmed when trying to find any of the several hundred booths or choosing among all the sessions, presentations, and other activities taking place during the sprawling event.
There was simply an avalanche of content and no easy way to consume it in the few days of the conference. Attendees left Cisco Live with the nagging feeling they might have missed out on extraordinary experiences and yet could have been standing just a few feet away from them and not even known it. "Our challenge was to help the equivalent of a small city's population find its way to sessions, explore and satisfy individuals' interests, and even solve problems on the fly," Briley says.
Compounding the task were a dozen new programs being added to the 2018 iteration of Cisco Live, such as the Big Ideas Theater, which would host an array of TED-like talks. Not furnishing guests with a way to effectively explore this crush of conference activities could easily render an otherwise exceptional user experience a nasty navigational nightmare. All told, refining Cisco Live, which drew a population twice that of the city of St. Augustine, FL, seemed like the kind of mountain even Norgay and Hillary might be reluctant to scale.
Briley's solution, perhaps not surprisingly for someone working at a $48 billion tech company, was to leverage technology to address Cisco Live's potential weak points with as much esprit as engineering. Generally, her concept to enhance the experience was to employ some mashup of Google Maps-like directions and pseudo-Siri-informed suggestions. Specifically, she decided to harness artificial intelligence (AI).
Supplying on-demand, location-based content about the 850 sessions, 350 booths, dozens of keynotes, and multiple other activities taking place would typically require pyramid-building levels of labor – and likely cost as much as those pharaonic monuments, too. But incorporating AI into the event's app made the task theoretically doable. One particular advantage of such an approach was that an event app, a regular staple of modern trade shows and conferences, would be familiar to attendees and not a newfangled technology whose novelty might prove too frustrating or problematic to work with.
"Our challenge was to help the equivalent of a small city's population find its way to sessions, explore and satisfy individuals' interests, and even solve problems on the fly."
But even the most robust of apps couldn't do what Briley needed it to do without a little help. As such, the Cisco Live app would work in tandem with beacons, small transmitters that connect to Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones and are often used for tracking and navigation. The beacons would be affixed to the backs of users' badges. Here again, Briley added a technically advanced and powerful feature to something so familiar and unobtrusive as to be functionally invisible, so that guests would not have the burden of contending with additional technology in any way.
Together, the beacon-enhanced badges would work in sync with the AI-augmented app to track registrants and thereby allow Cisco to supply them with hyperpersonalized recommendations that the company dubbed the Smart Agenda. Attendees would also have access to Wayfinding Maps, which relied on Cisco's Connected Mobile Experiences (CMX) technology.
The stand-alone maps would use positioning information to help users find their way via text directions and a graphical blue-colored dot that would lead the way to any point of interest attendees searched for.
Of course, there's always a fly ready to dive-bomb the ointment. In this case, it was the need for an infrastructure that would enable the app and beacons, one whose bandwidth was as vast as Briley's and Cisco's ambitions. The Cisco IT team was tasked with constructing an informational infrastructure with sufficient bandwidth and Wi-Fi connections across the event's three properties (the Orlando Convention Center and two adjacent hotels) to ensure a seamless experience for the city-sized audience's web surfing, messaging, and downloading needs. The setup would also handle Cisco's own requirements to provide lag-free guidance and timely recommendations through its app.
Based on the company's usage projections derived from previous events, Cisco planned a network that could handle more than 30 times the expected traffic. It would deliver 220 gigabytes per second (gps) of available bandwidth and allow 20,742 concurrent wireless connections – both new Cisco Live records. To put those numbers into perspective, 220 gps is the equivalent of transmitting 220 one-hour Netflix shows, 50,600 songs, or 3,861,440 PowerPoint files per second. But that overkill in capacity would ensure the Cisco Live app was an information highway with no speed bumps or potholes. Yet it would all be for naught if nobody used the AI-enabled features. So Briley and the event team set a few informal goals, with plans to use the 2018 metrics as benchmarks for any future apps' performance. They hoped that 50 percent of app users would activate the Wayfinding Maps, and that 20 percent would heed at least one of the AI-issued recommendations.
With the infrastructure's concept established, Briley's team turned its attention to generating awareness. Two weeks before Cisco Live blasted off, the company notified registrants via email and social media (and later through notices at the event) of the app's availability. From prior experience and customer reactions, Cisco knew the two-week interval would
allow attendees enough time to switch their session scheduling from the company's web-based format to the app and to get comfortable with its user interface before arriving on site. If Briley's plan was successful, the AI-augmented app and the network behind it would work together like a cross between Harry Potter's Marauder's Map and Star Wars' C-3PO.
Badge of Honor
When attendees arrived at the event last June, their enhanced experience began without fanfare the moment they picked up their badges, which were inconspicuously augmented with beacons. The personalized emblems tracked individuals' precise locations in the World of Solutions, the umbrella term Cisco used for the 722,000-square-foot space hosting the sessions, presentations, show floor, and more in the Orlando Convention Center and two official hotels.
Crunching and digesting a buffet of data, including the time of day, users' whereabouts, available sessions, demos, and other activities guests had registered for, as well as those they spontaneously attended on site, the Smart Agenda crafted suggestions every 30 seconds that were tailor-made for each recipient. Besides the aforementioned sources, the Smart Agenda also based its advice on users' browsing history and keyword searches on Cisco Live-related websites while inside the app – information they opted to provide while browsing those sites.
For example, after receiving their badges, registrants who had signed up for a session dubbed "Emotional AI and the Future of Work" might receive a notice on their event app that a thematically related keynote session with renowned physicist/futurist Michio Kaku would be starting in, say, 30 minutes. Those who simply needed navigational assistance to the suggested session opened the Wayfinding Maps feature and selected their current location via a blue place marker, after which the app issued them point-by-point directions. With AI technology folded into the app, users didn't have to futz with anything unfamiliar. Instead, it was all done for them with the smoothness of a butler delivering afternoon tea.
This Time, it's Personal
If attendees had received nothing more than an occasional random notification about a keynote speech, the app might have been viewed as something more gimmicky than groundbreaking. But Briley and her team's concept of what the overall experience should entail stretched into the realm of science fiction, where AI enriches the lives of flesh-and-blood humans via information, insights, and ideas that seem genie-like in their wisdom and understanding.
"Cisco included a feature in the app permitting users to easily create a "friends" group and then share any given suggestions the app made with these ad hoc acquaintances."
Suggesting an educational session might seem like a relatively easy act because the app would simply pull from data points such as other sessions users had attended. But when it came to the trade show and other segments of Cisco Live, the Smart Agenda software had to be as much an intuitive matchmaker as it was a data-digesting algorithm. The moment the geolocating beacon noticed that a guest crossed into the vicinity of the show floor, it triggered the app to start generating recommendations the registrants might find relevant and useful – from technical-solution clinics to walk-in, self-paced labs, as well as any number of the approximately 200 demos and individual exhibits representing companies such as Google LLC, IBM Corp., and Netscout Systems Inc.
Thus, someone who had registered for and attended the session "Preventing Cyber Threats" might then receive recommendations to check out a demo on threat intelligence and visit Ixia at booth 1713 to learn about cloud and network security. In all, the AI-enhanced app's prodigious cerebration analyzed a total of 1.71 billion data points to issue its recommendations during Cisco Live.
If it sounds like attendees were at the opinionated mercy of a know-it-all Hal 9000 or smart-aleck Skynet dictating what to do and where to go, the reality was anything but. The guests controlled much of this process themselves via a thumbs-up/thumbs-down icon in the app that popped up after each advisory, which would help the app deliver more precise results over time through the relentless Darwinian mechanics of machine learning. The interactivity enhanced the user experience while simultaneously refining AI's ability to deliver suggestions that were based on true insight and not just a cybernetic version of blind luck.
Adding to the collective experience, Cisco included a feature in the app permitting users to easily create a "friends" group and then share any given suggestions the app made with these ad hoc acquaintances. If, say, the app figured a guest might enjoy one of the presentations in the Big Ideas Theater, such as "How to be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice," that attendee could form an impromptu posse via the app and head over to watch the performance en masse. Proving it was not all work and no play, Cisco gamified a part of the app called Track Your Steps. Attendees opting in to this feature allowed the app to monitor the number of steps racked up each day, which were then translated into miles.
Leaving little to chance, Cisco also positioned several augmented reality (AR) signposts to help guests pilot the vast terrain of the World of Solutions. When they came across one of these 8-foot-tall markers, attendees could simply open their event apps, click on the AR feature, and point their phones at the sign. A colorful graphic would then come to life atop the marker with the name of a session or activity, for instance, accompanied by a large arrow pointing in the direction that the item of interest was located. While the AR signposts may seem redundant given the app's other features, they offered a pleasing and accessible contrast to the sometimes cramped visual confines of a smartphone screen, which probably accounts for why more than 30 percent of attendees used the feature at least once during the conference.
Besides creating digital tools for navigating the event and exploring its content with greater accuracy, Briley's team also brought technology to bear on one of the biggest ongoing problems at Cisco Live. For several years running, Cisco set up a Meet the Experts area at the event, where guests could chat with knowledgeable specialists on a nearly limitless variety of topics. In the past, however, attendees would queue up at a help desk fronting the designated area and ask if such-and-such an expert was available. If the expert was absent, they tended to linger indefinitely, hoping he or she would be free sometime soon. This often created a traffic jam that slowed the experience to the crawl of a dial-up connection.
To remedy that congestion in 2018, Cisco tracked its experts much like its attendees – but with an ingenious twist. Once any of the 200 experts in roughly 25 fields as diverse as data-center management and cybersecurity arrived at Cisco Live, their badges were fitted with beacons. Then, guests who wanted to have a tête-à-tête with one of the experts simply approached a kiosk in front of the Meet the Expert room on the trade show floor, entered their topic of interest using the kiosk's screen, and watched as a pin-drop graphic appeared showing which experts were available to speak on that topic and precisely where they were located. As a result, the waiting line decreased by up to 30 percent compared to previous years.
The sheer scope of this and all of Briley's efforts to integrate technology into such a massive event left All-Star Awards judges scrambling for superlatives. "Wow, just wow," said one judge. "She innovated the entire industry using an ingenious combination of AI, beacons, and machine learning."
"Technology, like art," wrote historian Daniel Bell, "is a soaring exercise of the human imagination," and Cisco's imaginative wielding of technology was as utilitarian as a hammer and as creative as a paintbrush. Briley and her team helped to seamlessly smooth out an event whose size and scope could have overwhelmed attendees – and thus disappointed them – by adding a component that functioned as both guardian angel and concierge.
Forming a baseline for future Cisco Live events, 90 percent of app users employed the Wayfinding Maps, nearly twice the pre-show goal of 50 percent. Moreover, 28 percent of conference attendees followed at least one AI-driven recommendation, again besting pre-event objectives. But beyond the metrics, Briley's triumph may have been the kind that numbers alone can't quite quantify – because like the best of maps, and in the tradition of history's great guides, she built Cisco Live guests a bridge between confusion and clarity.
Cisco Systems Inc.'s app for Cisco Live, its flagship annual event, drew upon the power of artificial intelligence to act as an almost omniscient concierge that guided attendees through
a 722,000-square-foot maze of learning sessions, exhibits, product demos, expert chats, and more.
The Smart Agenda feature provided custom-tailored recommendations for sessions, speeches, exhibits, etc., based on a wide assortment of information, such as users' locations, keyword searches in the app, and registration schedules.
When attendees opened this feature, a blue dot appeared on a map showing where they were at that moment. After inputting a destination, the map would guide them there via step-by-step directions.
This function allowed guests to instantly form a spur-of-the-moment group. For example, if the app suggested users would like a session on the Internet of Things, they could then
contact any number of registered users to attend that session with them.
Using a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon, users could rate the app's recommendations, thereby training it to provide better and more accurate suggestions. This subtly turned the app into an interactive tool that users could customize for their own likes and dislikes.
Track Your Steps
A step-counting function monitored how far users walked during the event and generated a graphic representation of the distance traversed converted into miles.