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Plantronics Aims To Build A Smarter Headset

If social and mobile are just steps down the road to contextual applications, Plantronics figures intelligence built into headsets can help pave the way.

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Plantronics thinks it knows what the Next Big Thing is going to be, and it wants a piece of the action.

Yes, these are the headset people. Headsets for office workers, commuters, air traffic controllers, and astronauts, wired, wireless, fancy, and simple. What Plantronics announced Wednesday is a software developer's kit and developer's program for applications that put communications in context.

"Over last two, three, maybe five years, everything has been about social--that's the great way we're all going to get productivity--but one of the next waves we're starting to hear a lot about is contextual intelligence, things that will give context to applications," Plantronics CTO Joe Burton said in an interview.

[ What's the link between social, voice, and video? See Will Social Show Its Face In Unified Communications?.]

Consulting firms like Accenture agree social and mobile are harbingers of something bigger: contextual information services that understand where we are, what we are doing, and what information or functions would be useful to us at the moment. Social software allows us to share signals about the people, projects, and events we're connected with, and mobile technologies can add indicators like location and motion. Gartner analysts predict context-aware technologies will affect $96 billion of annual consumer spending worldwide by 2015.

Plantronics figures it ought to be able to capture a slice of that. Most of the early examples revolve around mobile, Burton said. "When I pull out my iPhone and ask Siri to find me a Starbucks, it uses GPS to find me a near one--finding me a Starbucks in Beijing doesn't do me much good," he said. But location isn't the only interesting information a device can add to an application.

"We know if the headset is on your head or off your head. We also know proximity--if you're near or far from your mobile phone, or, if it's linked to your PC, your desk phone. We know if you're on a call, and, if it's a soft phone, we know if it's Skype or Cisco or Avaya. We know the caller ID on any device. We know a lot of stuff," Burton said. Plantronics already uses some of that intelligence internally--for example, if the phone rings, and you put on the headset, it will answer the phone without requiring you to push any buttons. But more creative applications are possible, he said.

If there's a contextual applications gold rush coming, Plantronics doesn't see itself as the company to mine that opportunity directly by creating the applications, Burton said. Rather, it wants to "sell the shovels"--make the tools that make interesting contextual applications possible, he said.

The SDK for Windows includes a sample application that will send out a tweet every time you do something with your headset--not that Burton would recommend that as anything particularly useful, but just to demonstrate the concept.

Early integration partners include Sococo, creator of a unique bobble-head avatar collaboration tool; Five9, a provider of cloud-based call center software; and PGi, the company behind the iMeet and Global Meet virtual meeting services.

For example, according to a published case study, developers at Five9 used the SDK to leverage contextual data from agents' headsets based on their availability at any point in time. With the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC, Five9 can intelligently sense the agent's state, based on proximity to the work station, and forward the calls if the agent is away, according to Plantronics.

Burton said another developer prototyped a click-to-call integration for Jive Software's social collaboration environment that made use of the SDK.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and facebook.com/thebyard

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