At least in the world of tech conferences, the existence of an audience backchannel during presentations isn’t much of a revelation: IRC has both formally and informally filled that role for years, and ca. 2008 it’s getting hard to find a big ticket presentation that isn’t being “liveblogged” by somebody. The phenomenon received an injection of technological currency with the Twittering of Lacy/Zuckerberg at this year’s SXSW, but it’s basically nothing new.
On a related topic, one of the biggest issues for anyone presenting is getting a read on the audience: how is this going over? Do I need to pick up the pace a little bit, or slow down? Did they all stop listening five minutes ago? One excellent speaker I know builds in a number of jokes as his thermometer, evaluating both how much response he gets to a joke and how quickly that response comes.
There have been a number of experiments with integrating the audience backchannel into a presentation, but as much as I like discussion and exchange, if somebody has a well-constructed, well-rehearsed presentation I don’t want them looking at their laptop every other minute to check out the latest comments from the peanut gallery. I want the actual presentation, but I’d be interested in seeing what presenters could do with some form of audience feedback. Thus the visual backchannel is born.
You make a little device…or rather you make of whole bunch of them. It is perhaps shaped like a ball small enough to fit nicely in a single hand. When someone holds the device, their hand completes a circuit, and via the little wifi radio that you cleverly included in it, the device sends a notification of that change in state to a nearby server. For extra credit, have the device measure the force of the grip and send that data, as well.
You then hand out one of these devices to every audience member as they enter the presentation space, telling them to grip the ball when they’re interested and let go of it when they’re not interested.
All of this data is sliced, diced, and mashed together by the receiving server and presented as some sort of interesting (and very simple) visualization on a monitor that’s visible to the presenter. Something as simple as a graphical representation of how much of the audience is “engaged” and what the engaged/disengaged trend is could be both beautiful and extremely useful.
And from there you’ve got a universe of other interesting possibilities for data analysis and visualization available. Put a more granular view up on a big screen behind the presenter, too, if you want. And on the Web–why not? A site that compares the visualizations from a variety of presenters would be fascinating, right? Or an annotated engagement timeline of the next Jobsnote?
This would, of course, have the side effect of forcing livebloggers to decide whether it was more important to provide feedback to the room in which they are actually sitting or type their every thought for the whole Internet to enjoy, but I think that might actually be a good thing. [Please note that I deleted the joke about how being able to type with one hand while the other was busy may actually be a skill that most bloggers have mastered, as I felt it was in poor taste.]
Any questions? I’m looking in your direction, potential ITP 2009 show participants…