Crowd Mics – Improving Audience Interaction Through a Common Handheld Device

Several years ago, brothers Tim and Sean Holladay were sitting together at a meeting and couldn’t hear the questions and comments issued from some of the 120 attendees. The Holladays wondered why it wasn’t possible to simply use their phones as microphones and were later amazed when researching the idea to find it hadn’t already been done.

“Like any crazy entrepreneurs, we tried to figure out what it would look like if we created it, and that turned out to be the genesis for Crowd Mics,” said CEO Tim. Their product launched three years ago and has been powering audience interaction at both national and international meetings, conferences and events ever since.

Though the brothers did not come from the event or audio industry, Tim spent the 12 years prior to starting Crowd Mics traveling around with a trailer filled with speakers, microphones, cables and projectors, acting as the audio/visual staff for small corporate events. He found that once the attendees present numbered 100 or more, it became very difficult to hear those who were speaking; using a regular microphone also cut down on the time available for people to weigh in.

Crowd Mics makes interaction simple and instantaneous. To use it, the audience at an event simply downloads a free app for IOS or Android, either at the event or prior to it, if they receive a reminder from the event host. Someone in the room is designated as the moderator and manages the audience interaction using an IPad as the moderating device. They create a session and everyone joins in on the same WiFi network, using three available features from their phones – texting, live polling, or the microphone. To project the sound, the moderator either plugs the IPad into the sound system with the headphone jack or uses Crowd Mics hardware called the ATOM – a box that connects to both the network and the sound system, bridging the gap between the two.

“Audience participation goes up four to six times what it would be without Crowd Mics,” said Tim. “Whereas before, with 200-300 people in a room, you might get only three to raise their hands in a standard 10-minute Q & A, now you’ll get 20 to 30 questions via both audio and text. The interaction goes way up and if you add the polling feature to that you really have a lot of impact.”

Crowd Mics performs best when there are between 100 and 500 attendees, whether at an annual meeting held in a hotel; a company’s internal, all-hands-on monthly meeting; a church gathering; or in a school lecture hall.

Crowd Mics has been used at Dreamforce, Oracle OpenWorld, UBS conferences, Novogradac events, and in educational space with groups such as Harvard Medical School, MIT, and ASC, among many others. PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong has purchased a handful of their licenses and hardware, and Crowd Mics has partners in the U.K., New Zealand and Australia who have used it at events and are now reselling it.

“Quite transparently, the challenge we run into regardless of where it’s being used is more of a technology issue that an interest issue,” said Tim. “The concept is very interesting and exciting, but in order for that microphone to perform, your network has to really perform and that can be a challenge in a lot of scenarios. When you are in a hotel ballroom, who knows what kind of network is in place?”

To address this issue, Crowd Mics is often on site for bigger clients, bringing their own wireless network into hotel ballrooms. In other cases, where Crowd Mics is being permanently installed, they work closely with the client’s IT team to make sure the network is configured correctly.

“A number of our clients just use the texting and polling features that do not require a WiFi connection to the audio system so it’s a much more straightforward situation,” said Tim.

Even with Crowd Mics in place, audience participation still greatly favors polling or texting versus using a live microphone. Polling simply involves tapping an answer to a question and texting is preferred 10 to 1 over voiced comments or questions.
“Given the option, 9 out of 10 people would choose to text a question rather than asking it with the mic, even though the mic is easy and it’s their own phone,” said Tim. “It’s due to human nature – people just get shy in front of a mic and some also prefer anonymity.”

Unofficially, Tim and Sean find that at any meeting or event, about 10 percent of the audience will walk up to a mic to ask a question and it’s the same 10 percent who will use their phones as mics. Crowd Mics unlocks the other 90 percent of potential audience interaction, primarily via text. The moderator or presenter will start to weave in both audio and text questions, which in turn leads to more interaction.

“Adding the ability to text and poll to the Q & A is incredibly powerful,” said Tim. “What we find is that instead of a 20-minute presentation followed by 10 minutes of Q & A, which is fairly standard, in your 20 minutes of presentation, rather than the audience sitting and thinking about questions, perhaps forgetting them before the chance to ask them, they can text the question in the moment they think of it.”

With Crowd Mics, a presenter avoids the awkward “does anyone have a question?” moment and just starts with ten good questions people already texted. People then use the mic, it goes back to text, mixes in some polls, and the interaction usually works.

“We have definitely seen audiences that are much more liberal with their use of texts than others – for the most part people are pretty guarded – but there is an option of whether or not to be anonymous,” said Tim. “It all comes down to a really good moderator, whether it’s the presenter onstage or somebody offstage. As questions come in they are quickly assessing them, deleting the ones they don’t want to use or saving good ones for the actual Q & A.”
The interface and experience are seamless enough that Tim has been able to train some moderators right on stage, working with them and then handing over the reins to the interface when they seem comfortable with it. He finds that moderators pick it up very quickly.

“We firmly believe that this is the microphone of the future,” said Tim. “Just ten years ago, we couldn’t imagine using a phone as a camera – they were pieces of junk. Now, the camera of choice is in your pocket, always. That is what will happen with the microphone. I predict five years from now you’ll walk into a session and have the expectation that your phone can be the mic.”

Crowd Mics continues to work on wireless network performance to make sure the mic works in subpar situations. In addition, there are plans to make features more interactive, by updating and upgrading polling features, for instance. They’ll also explore how the experience can be incorporated into companies’ daily operations, letting people pose questions days and weeks before an event or meeting and letting questions be ranked by communities of employees or attendees in advance. The interactivity can continue after a conference as well.

Another important factor for Tim and Sean is that Crowd Mics be a very accessible technology for those who may have physical or mental difficulties when interacting in a public setting. The technology allows those who have anxiety speaking in front of a group to text questions or comments, for example.

“For those who are hard of hearing, what about the opposite of Crowd Mics?” said Tim. “What if it can not only be the microphone of choice but the speaker system of choice, where an attendee can put in their own headphones or connect to their Bluetooth hearing aid and hear everything in the room, right in their ear?”

Advances in Crowd Mics technology might also lead to enabling everything said during a session to be translated into the language of the user, so that they can read a text transcription they can understand. For Tim and Sean, there is no longer a need to struggle to hear or participate during a conference or event. The power of audience interaction rests firmly in each attendee’s hands.

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