Tool Review: CrowdMics

by | Sep 19, 2014

Could an app help to amplify audience questions? We review CrowdMics – a smartphone app based microphone system for conferences that aims to do just that.

 
Taking audience questions at a live event is not usually an issue for an event amplifier, as we are normally more concerned with bringing the remote audience’s voice into the room. However, the audibility of local audience members is important for the remote audience if they are to feel fully included in the event.

In this post we tread the line between audio amplification and social media amplification to see if a smartphone app can help with both.

The Problem with Audience Questions

 
Whether we are live video or audio streaming an event, or filming it for future use, sound quality is the most important aspect of the process. Poor quality audio can have a major impact on the experience of those watching or listening, and will often result in them switching off or complaining. The issues with Apple’s recent product launch live stream was a prime example of exactly how important the audio can be for a live stream.

So imagine my groans every time it comes to audience questions and someone stands up to speak, refuses to wait for the roaming microphone and says “Its ok, I’ll project!”

For reference, it is never, ever ok. I don’t care if the room is small, there are only a few people sitting close to you or if you have a REALLY SUPER LOUD VOICE. It is still not ok.

Firstly, there’s the accessibility issue. Anyone in the room who may be relying on a hearing aid loop delivered through the venue’s PA system will not be able to hear you properly. You are unlikely to notice anyone using a hearing aid in this way and will be discriminating against them by making part of the event inaccessible.

Secondly, the people watching the live video stream or watching the video are not going to be able to hear you clearly. Your question may be heard by the people around you in the room, but the bigger audience is the one you can’t see. If you don’t use a microphone we will usually cut your question entirely in the video edit after the event. It doesn’t matter if your question was vital – if it can’t be heard properly, it will just cause frustration for viewers.

As you can probably guess, this has happened to us on more than one occasion whilst working at an event. I have always believed that it should be the role of the chairperson to enforce the use of microphones by all speakers and always stress the importance of this element of good event housekeeping when working with new clients.

However, could a new smartphone app potentially solve the problem and make the job of running around a auditorium with a roaming microphone a thing of the past?

CrowdMics Overview

 
Earlier this week I came across a post on Techsytalk introducing CrowdMics. CrowdMics is an app that turns your smartphone into a wireless microphone that can communicate with the presenter’s smartphone or tablet, which in turn can be connected to the venue’s PA system. The presenter can choose to allow individual audience members to speak, effectively handing them the microphone without having to pass a handheld radio mic across the room.

This short video from CrowdMics explains the functionality in more detail:

 

 

Prices vary depending on the size of your event, ranging from free (up to 20 participants) through to $198 for 200 participants. The app also features the ability to text questions to the presenter, and to answer polls.

Each participant downloads a free app to their smartphone and enters a three digit code to access the live event. Participants must be on the same wireless network as the presenter’s device, although this does not have to be connected to the internet. In an amplified event context I would expect participants to be connected to the internet via wifi, but it is reassuring to know that the system would still operate if the internet connection failed for any reason.

Once connected, both the presenter and audience member interfaces are well designed and simple to use, effectively removing a barrier between the two.

How might CrowdMics help amplify an event?

 
As described above, one of the main problems we encounter at conferences and workshops is that audience members often think they can project sufficiently for the audience in the room to hear them, but forget that the audience watching the live stream or post-event video will not be able to hear unless they speak into a microphone.

I am not sure whether CrowdMics could realistically solve this problem from a behavioural standpoint, as it would require planning on the part of the questioner and could be just as easily forgotten as waiting for a roaming microphone. The app is straightforward to use once connected, but there are a few hurdles to getting connected that may mean your audience requires additional support. Audience members have to be connected to the same wifi network as your speaker, download the app, find the event and enter a three digit passcode set by the speaker. This may require a degree of direction from the event organiser and could deter spontaneous questioning, particularly from less tech savvy audience members. The novelty factor might appeal to certain audiences, but in most cases a strong chairperson who can enforce use of a roaming microphone would be just as effective.

That said, CrowdMics may be a practical option for certain event spaces, where getting the roaming microphone to a particular audience member in a timely way might be challenging, or where a roaming microphone is not available for any reason.

I would be more tempted to use CrowdMics at smaller events or for panel debates, where ambient microphones will not give the degree of control or audio quality required, and micing up every individual participant may not be practical. The ability to mute particular speakers using the presenter device would be very helpful to avoid those ‘Gordon Brown moments’, which can be a challenge when we are forced to use ambient microphones or a very basic, all-or-nothing venue PA system.

Other features of CrowdMics, such as texting a question or answering a poll could also be useful to explore for certain events. The ability to have these two streams of information integrated into an interface that the speaker or the chairperson can see and use easily – rather than trying to filter questions and opinions from a flurry of tweets – will suit certain speakers and events. However, the audience contributions made through the app would not be public to the rest of the audience, and therefore not fully amplified.

 

Conclusions

 

As with every tool, the key to using an app like CrowdMic will be how you integrate it into the audience experience.

At smaller events the set up and use of the ‘audience’ devices could conceivably be within the event amplifier or technician’s control, effectively replacing the need for multiple wireless microphone sets. Depending on the circumstances, this could be cheaper than investing in expensive wireless microphone sets and the associated PMSE licences for the use of the relevant radio frequencies.

At larger events the audience are likely to be using the app directly through their own devices, which will require strong, clear leadership from the event’s chairperson and the availability of technical support in some cases.

The variety of uses for CrowdMics means it is definitely worth exploring further, depending on the needs of a particular event audience. Versatility is definitely a big plus for conference-related apps, so I will be playing with this further.

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