Callisto Tech Demo — A Look at Taking Video and Voice Collaboration to Space with Webex’s Jono Luk

On this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast, we’re going to space! I’m thrilled to have Jono Luk, VP of Product Management for Webex as my guest and we’re going to talk about space exploration and how collaboration and voice technology are starting to play an increasingly important role in space exploration. 

First, some background. Orion is the most advanced spacecraft ever developed to carry astronauts to the moon. What’s exciting is that voice activation and collaboration technology can take it to the next level by enabling interactive computer systems to become ready for the next gen of explorers. Orion’s uncrewed Artemis 1 mission is a tech demonstration developed through Lockheed Martin’s reimbursable space act agreement with NASA, and Lockheed Martin has partnered with Cisco and Amazon to bring Webex video collaboration and Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant on board during Orion’s first flight test in deep space, called the Callisto project.

While Jono’s official focus at Webex is on leading Contact Center and the Admin, Security Data, and Shared Experiences Project Management teams at Webex, when he had the chance to be  a part of the Callisto project, he jumped at it, and who wouldn’t? I would say that it’s not a stretch at all that a project focused on how commercial tech can be a part of the future of deep space exploration and assist future astronauts on deep space missions fits nicely under “shared experiences” category.

Our conversation today covered the following:

  • The goal of the Callisto Tech Demo project, which is to demonstrate how astronauts and flight controllers can use human-machine interface tech to make their jobs simpler, safer, and more efficient, and also advance human exploration in deep space.
  • Jono took us on a walk through how the tech works, connecting through NASA’s Deep Space Network, and a local database that’s located on board the spacecraft to communicate with Webex and Alexa.
  • How the hardware was hardened to protect it for the radiation environment on Orion’s deep space journey.
  • Jono shared some of the challenges the team working on this project had to overcome, as well as some things they learned along that way that were unexpected.
  • Why Cisco is uniquely positioned to be the partner with Lockheed Martin and part of the Callisto Tech Demo project along with Amazon, and what this means for use cases beyond simply deep space.

This was incredibly exciting, and I’m thrilled to have been invited to be a part of Callisto Tech Demo and experience firsthand the realities of bringing video and voice collaboration tech — to deep space as well as to other remote places in the world, and the benefits that we can reap as a result.

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Shelly Kramer: Hello and welcome to the Future of Tech Webcast. I’m Shelly Kramer, principal analyst and founding partner here at Future and Research. And today we are going to space. I could not be any more excited to have as my guest Jono Luk, who’s the VP of product Management for WebEx. And we are going to talk about space exploration and how collaboration and voice technology are starting to play an increasingly important role in space exploration. So as a little background, I want to talk about Orion, which is the most advanced spacecraft ever developed to carry astronauts to the moon. And voice activation and collaboration technology can help take this spacecraft to the next level by enabling interactive computer systems to become ready basically for the next gen of space explorers. Orion’s uncrewed Artemis One mission is a tech demonstration developed through Lockheed Martin’s Reimbursable Space Act agreement with NASA and Lockheed Martin. Partnered with Cisco and with Amazon to bring WebEx video collaboration and Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant onboard during Orion’s first flight test in deep space. And this is called the Calisto Project. So Jono, welcome, it’s great to have you.

Jono Luk: Thank you for having me.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, you invited me to Houston to see all of this stuff last week. So this is my invitation to you to showcase some of the amazing things that we both got to see an experience while we were in Houston at the Johnson Space Center. So your focus at WebEx is on leading contact center, and the admin security data and shared experiences, project management teams at WebEx. So I guess it’s not too much of a leap to say that a project focused on how commercial tech can be a part of the future of deep space exploration is a shared experience, right?

Jono Luk: A little out of this world, if you will. Sorry, I had to put that in somewhere in our conversation. Absolutely.

Shelly Kramer: And you told me last week when we were together how you got involved with the Callisto project. Tell me a little bit, tell our audience a little bit about that because I thought that was super interesting.

Jono Luk: So, if you’ll go back in time a little bit with MEPs, it was about the summer of 2019, the lock heater reached out to Cisco with this wild idea that maybe we could, as you mentioned in the opening there, take some of the commercial technologies we use day in day out, and make deep space exploration better. The key to this, and you also mentioned it’s a technology demonstration, we’re demonstrating the possibilities of… And they said, “Hey Cisco, you have video and we could do here.” And, September 2019, we met up in Houston, and a bunch of us sat in this dark room with no windows, and ironically with a Cisco telepresence unit in the corner that nobody knew how to use because it was little old. And we said, “What are we going to do? How can we make this happen?”

And literally over the past three and a half years, brought to life the Callisto technology demonstration, and it’s been great to see, hopefully some of the viewers here will be able to see some of the images on the internet and elsewhere where we showcase how the technology the Cisco WebEx specifically has, has been able to facilitate that. And we over the 26 days of the mission tested this, right? We showcased it on a daily basis with virtual crew members like yourself in Houston.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, absolutely. So really the whole point of all of this is about demonstrating how astronauts and flight controllers can use human machine interface tech to help make their job simpler, to be safer, to be more efficient, and also of course to advance human exploration in deep space. So that’s no small thing to be a part of. I mean, it really is incredibly cool.

Jono Luk: Oh yeah, a hundred percent. I think you hit it right on. It’s not just the video element. I think this is such a basic one that… Well, I mean I’m a Star Trek fan, and so even as a kid you saw the Alien of the week right over the screen. It’s the instructive nature, the picture’s worth a thousand words elements of some of our collaboration technology that we hope will really help in the future.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. Absolutely. So talk with me a little bit about the geeky parts. How does this work? Obviously traveling in deep space, we’re collaborating right now. We’re using the cloud, right? So, it would be impossible to use the cloud down on earth to make this happen. So talk with me a little bit, if you would, about how it works.

Jono Luk: Yeah, absolutely. And you’re going to have to hit the red button to tell me to stop because I could go out this crap.

Shelly Kramer: The gong.

Jono Luk: I mean, first thing Shelly, you just said it, right? Between you and I right now, there is fiber optic cable, there’s a lot of fiber optic cable. The realities of video communication and collaboration on earth are wildly different than space. We’re super fortunate. NASA has their deep space network, which is a collection of satellite dishes, a distributor around the world. I always want to geek out and say this, it’s Spain, California, and Australia, right? These giant dishes up to 70 meters. That’s how they keep in touch.

Shelly Kramer: Got it.

Jono Luk: That is their internet, if you will, or the network for connectivity. But the realities of deep space communication, there is no, again, a fiber optic cable, these are satellite using radio waves. And so, one of the major constraints is just the bandwidth that we could get, during this technology demonstration we weren’t a mission critical payload or workload, so we were given a limited amount of bandwidth. And it put this in perspective, I don’t don’t know. Some of the viewers here may remember the days of 128 kilobits a second. That was your dial up days folks.

Shelly Kramer: I remember.

Jono Luk: Be glad, right? Be glad. But that’s how much balance we had, somewhere between 128 and 190 kilobits a second. You and I right now are probably using about a meg and a bit.

Shelly Kramer: Right.

Jono Luk: And so, just put that in perspective, a 10x decrease in the bandwidth that we were allowed to use for the purposes of the demonstration. Now add to that, the distance that we have to send this, you are probably at home, I’m in San Francisco right now, we’re at most 1500 miles away from each other.

Shelly Kramer: Right.

Jono Luk: Again, over those fiber optic networks, the distance Orion spacecraft went up to 270,000 miles away from home at its spur point, the latency that happens because of that distance, we’re talking five, seven, potentially 10 seconds. If I say something to you right now, Shelly, and you stare at me blankly, I’ll say, “Did you catch that? Did you hear me?” Right? Milliseconds matter there. And so there was the latency of the signal getting out there and back. That also changed how we stitch these things together. People are seeing you and I as audio and video fully in sync, my mouth moves, the sound comes out. But behind the scenes, that’s actual work that has to happen is stitch it together, the sounds right, and the video. So those are some of the things, how much and latency, the last that deep space network, it’s effectively an on-premises or a private network. It’s not public internet. And so, we had to make sure that WebEx, and we have a version of WebEx that runs on-premises could work properly and that because it is super secure and controlled.

Shelly Kramer: Right. Another thing I learned from you when I was in Houston last week is that the hardware that you are going to use as part of this tech demonstration has to meet certain requirements.

Jono Luk: Yeah.

Shelly Kramer: And so, talk with us a little bit about that.

Jono Luk: I was in awe when I heard this myself. So, the chief engineer for the Calisto Tech demonstration, Brian Jones told me this. So, for folks that have seen an image or will see an image of Calisto, it’s a pretty big blue unit about yay big, a foot and a half pillow perhaps. At the bottom is a tablet, a screen, that is an iPad, an Apple iPad, the same one that you and I might have at home. And they took this iPad to one of the hospital networks on the east coast, and they bombarded it with radiation to make sure it could survive space travel, right? And so talk about commercial technology literally off the shelf of a store, and then pulled them to this radiation machine because there is radiation in space. So to a point-

Shelly Kramer: But it stood up, that’s what was really so cool. I mean, just your ordinary, average Apple iPad.

Jono Luk: … I love that story. I remember hearing and brought and said he was there and I’m like, “Oh, I hope everything’s okay?” He goes, “Yeah, we’re just about to bombard an iPad with radiation.” It took me a second to process what that meant, right? But hey, it worked.

Shelly Kramer: It worked. Absolutely. So there had to be some problems along the way, right? So talk with us a little bit about some challenges that you had to overcome.

Jono Luk: Yeah, so going back to some of the general parameters of this mission, that latency, the compression we learned as we went. So we were fortunate, we had a lot of time before it launched to fine tune and tweak. And some of the Cisco engineers that… I mean, all of them much smarter than I am, were literally testing and validating because Lockheed had those networks that simulate those conditions, simulate the deep space network. And so we refined, we were refined, we refined. Cisco WebEx already works in rural communities. During the pandemic there was remote education, there was telehealth requirements, but we support that low bandwidth high latency, but that low bandwidth and high latency was a very different low bandwidth high latency, right? So that was where we really continued to refine, learn, and improve that technology. We took those same improvements and put them back into our commercial WebEx because this is the point, right? Commercial tech and space, they’re making life better here.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely.

Jono Luk: Another one was just how we were surprised, and I’m not saying this to pat ourselves on the back, but we were surprised how transformative the Cisco boards, the whiteboarding and annotation was. So as we were doing our testing and bringing folks through, literally these virtual crew members, half of them were in awe going, “I need that now.” The ability to draw a point, zoom in, and instruct. It seems like such a basic fundamental thing that you and I might use Shelly to communicate about something, but applying that to deep space travel, we can’t send 3000 scientists into space with the Orion spacecraft. This way we can, right? They can be watching, observing, and instructing about the experiments they want. That was a really interesting learning for us as well. Something that we think, “Oh, well, I have one on my desk. I have one in the office.” But apply that to space travel.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. It was really an amazing part of the demonstration for me when I was in Houston. And to explain it to the audience, we were working on the WebEx whiteboard. And so, we did a couple of different things. One is we just walked up to the whiteboard and wrote a message on the whiteboard that then showed up in the space capsule five seconds later. And so, that was really, really cool. And then another thing was something that you showed us, Jono, it was just part of our demonstration, but say for example, the spacecraft is landing on the moon and you at Mission Control wanted to tell your astronauts, “I want you to take this path from the spacecraft over to this area on the moon.” And so, we could see an image of the moon, like mission control could see, and we could take a marker and actually draw a path that we wanted our astronauts to take. So again, it’s about collaboration and picture’s worth a thousand words, right? But really what you can do to communicate with one another beyond just the spoken word, that I think was incredibly impressive.

Jono Luk: Absolutely. Well, I’m glad you felt that too, being in that room, seeing, and feeling it, right? It is transformative, I think in how we can instruct and share.

Shelly Kramer: And I will include for our viewing and our listing audience, I’ll include some images that I took, some photos that I took when I was in Houston last week, showing what the board looks like and what I’m talking about in terms of drawing a path and that sort of thing. Because it was really, really interesting. And, it was just so cool to do that, and then to look, because We could look onto a monitor and see that image showing up that we had created in the cockpit. So, just like, oh my gosh, really cool.

Jono Luk: A pen stroke as you were writing it.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah.

Jono Luk: It was off about five seconds later, right?

Shelly Kramer: Yeah.

Jono Luk: That was really cool.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. Very, very cool. So, along the way, you had to learn some things that you didn’t expect. Okay. So, beyond the fact that an Apple iPad is incredibly resilient as it relates to radiation, what else did you learn along the way that you might not have expected going in?

Jono Luk: So WebEx works on, like I mentioned before on these on-premises networks today, right? We have customers they have nautical shipping boats and machinery and such, oil and gas. And so, we thought we knew the different constraints that might be in place because of the networks, but we learned more. So I mentioned this as we were deploying and testing the different types of configurations. Now, I would argue the Deep space network that NASA has is probably one of the most advanced networks in the world right out of this world. Again, trying to-

Shelly Kramer: Out of this world.

Jono Luk: … I can, but just the nuances around how signal is sent. Right? So literally from our server up to through the Deep Space Network, there’s just a different paths, different things that we don’t account for. Because when we talk about the internet here, its literally so much simpler. And I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. And that was helpful because for us that’s a different customer scenario.

Shelly Kramer: A different way of thinking about that. I mean, a lot of what a lot of us do, right? Is all about understanding customer challenges, and solving their problems, and making things more effective, more efficient, you name it. So it’s taking into consideration those nuances, those things that you never thought about or never thought you would have to think about in order to make that work a good job for people who problem solving, right?

Jono Luk: That’s right. Luckily, I like problems. I like solved problems more. The other one that was fun that we learned more about along the way is, and hopefully in some of the photos you’ll show, people will see this, at the back of what we called the Callisto Operation suite was a Cisco board, but that was connected to the internet and we were bringing student classes. We didn’t get to do this Shelly, for our session together, but there was other sessions where we would dial in classrooms, right?

Shelly Kramer: Yeah.

Jono Luk: Certain classes were able to watch, observe, and participate in the testing. And just the technology itself. Again, we’ve had it, we do remote learning, but watching how kids leverage the reaction buttons, watching the way in which they wanted to control and zoom in and understand the room better, the thing better, something that we have with WebEx technology, as we call it, people focus. If there’s three people in the room on a device, we will snap into each of their faces.

Shelly Kramer: Right.

Jono Luk: People wanted it the other way around. They’re saying, “I want to see the wall up there. I want to see that thing over here, and I want to see this.” And that was actually really interesting. Hearing kids afterwards say, “I wish I could have seen all three things at the same time.” That’s something we necessarily do from the other side, right? So, I would argue that was a very valuable learning, again, we support a lot of remote education, and I think just the nature of that room, there was so much going on, that’s why they asked for it. So it wasn’t people’s faces, it was that screen, that thing over there, the microphone, and of course the people that were talking.

Shelly Kramer: Right. What’s so cool about something like that is I have twin 16 year olds who are juniors in high school. And so, they’re wrestling with the what do I want to be when I grow up? Question. And I think that’s really hard for young people. I think we have these expectations that a 17 year, an eight or teen year old should know. And most of us don’t figure out that for a while. Right? And so, I’m a big believer in, you can’t be what you can’t see. And so, being able to involve students in tech demonstrations like this, it just opens our eyes. Not only, I mean, of course not everyone can be an astronaut, right? We learned how many people apply, right?

And how many people are selected for the space program. But oh my gosh, engineers, we were surrounded every step of the way by engineers who made this happen, and people who love challenges and thinking about problems and thinking about how we can make things work. And so I love that. And I’m going to ask you to tell us just quickly about the organization Dina was with. And I know you play a role in it, so I’d love to just give her a little plug here in this conversation because it’s so cool.

Jono Luk: Absolutely. So you’re right. Dina was one of our virtual crew members. She helped co-host some of these STEM sessions where classrooms could dial in. So I actually worked with her in a program called iUrbanTeen. The focus there is, so actually I’m going to phrase this the way that I always phrase it as a pitch to you all. I think that success is the intersection of opportunity and skill, it truly is. Right place, right time, right fit for that opportunity, right? And the reality is that so many kids, not just in this country, but around the world, do not have the opportunity to get the right skills or the opportunity to be a match with those skills. And so, iUrbanTeen is very much about, well, both making sure and supporting students in STEM plus arts, arts is a key part. People don’t always realize this music and math very interrelated.

Shelly Kramer: They are.

Jono Luk: And so that’s why STEM, right? STEM plus arts is such a critical piece. And iUrbanTeen focuses on connecting students with the skills and through those workshops. And we have an iSpace workshop, for example, also connecting them within industry folks.

Shelly Kramer: Right.

Jono Luk: And that can lead to opportunity, right? So that’s really how I always speak about iUrbanTeen. It is about the opportunity to get the skill that’s interesting, the opportunity to potentially leverage that skill, and I mean, the rest is up to you. That’s the truth, right? Again, so much of success is that luck, the luck of the right place, right time, and having the right skills to fit. And so Dina and that organization, an amazing thing, and I’m super proud of working with them. This is my second year working with them, and they have offices and locations throughout the United States.

Shelly Kramer: Yes. And she is doing amazing work. I’ll include a link to iUrbanTeen in our show notes, so that if this is of interest, you can check it out. And again, for young people, representation and you can’t be what you can’t see. So when you can see what’s possible, when you are exposed to things like this it gets your mind thinking in entirely new directions is in terms of what’s possible for you and your career, and I think that’s incredibly cool.

Jono Luk: Yeah.

Shelly Kramer: So why Cisco? I mean, come on, that’s like, this is an easy one, really, but why do you think Cisco is uniquely positioned to be the partner for Callisto?

Jono Luk: Yeah, I mean, there’s a couple things. First of all, why not Cisco? Realistically a couple elements matter here, where I think Cisco is known for being a rock solid reliable partner and provider of technology and capabilities, whether that be around networking, security or video collaboration. In this case, brand and reputation matters.

Shelly Kramer: Sure.

Jono Luk: As we move forward, the second is the ability to evolve and be that partner, right? As things come up having the right pieces, whether before the Calisto operation suite or the things up there in space. And I would say that the third thing that really helps here is, like I said, we have customers that are in the oil and gas, in the nautical. We work with military organizations as well, so we have that experience and we serve them day in day out. And so that was a huge step already towards what we needed for Calisto and the Orion mission. So, I would say those are probably the first three of this of course. And hopefully if we get to work in future missions together, that just is the beginning of a good partnership.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. And I think I would say, as we wrap this show, I think that what this means for the future is, it’s not only all about opportunities as it relates to deep space exploration, right? And you touched on this just a minute ago. There are so many circumstances where what happened with this Calisto tech demo is that the goal was to help decouple astronauts from Earth and allow them to operate more independently, right? So using a voice activated device to talk through a procedure, using video collaboration to help show them how to do something or how to find something. Okay. So it’s possible, but then when you extrapolate that out and you think about, like you said, the oil and gas industry, or remote field operations, or things where connectivity is not always a given, but you do have teams who need to be able to be decoupled from corporate headquarters in some way or another and be able to work efficiently and effectively using collaboration tools. So I think that this is really a big step forward.

Jono Luk: I caught that. This is work from anywhere to the extreme, right? To the 270,000 miles away. Yeah.

Shelly Kramer: All right. Well, Jono, thank you so much for hanging out with me today. Thank you even more for inviting me to Houston, the Johnson Space Center last week, and show me an up close and personal look at the Calisto Tech demo. It was such a highlight of my week, actually, a highlight of my year. It was wonderful experience, and it really gets your mind thinking about just all the possibilities and really the role that collaboration platforms and voice technology plays for all of us in NASA and beyond. So it’s really exciting. But thank you for spending time with me today. I really appreciate it, and I am sure we will talk again soon.

Jono Luk: Thank you, Shelly.

Shelly Kramer: All right, we’ll see you.


Author Information

Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”


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