Bobb Sleezer, RBP, FBCA

Audience Response Systems

In today’s world of communication the faster we can gather, distribute, and react to information the more it will benefit us in moving toward the future.  Since the 1950s, electronics has opened the doors to new methods for moving information. Radio, television, computers, and satellites have changed the way we communicate.  We’ve come a long way from the dawn of the written document using papyrus and stylus, and Guttenberg’s printing press has been left far behind, replaced with a constant stream of electrons as the new carrier of information.  "Quicker, faster, better!” seems to be society’s mantra (Well, at least for most things it is!).

In corporate board rooms, professional conferences, classrooms and many other venues, the technology involved in communicating information is reaching new levels of capability through the use of audience response systems.  No longer limited to hardwired devices that lock a room’s configuration in place or limits the number of devices, audience response systems can turn any room into an active interchange of information.  Essentially, participants key in their choice of answers on hand-held computer terminals, which transmit the response back to a computer that then evaluates and displays the results for the audience.  Depending on the level of sophistication of the programming, data can be displayed based on individual responses, demographic groups, or team scores, just to name a few. 

Electronic audience response systems (ARS) initially began as a series of wired connections back to a computer. Today, wired ARS is not even considered.  It has gone the way of the slide rule. No one is writing new software for wired applications because it is labor intensive and thus economically impractical; and the numerous RJ11 connections make them unreliable. Like many other digital applications, using wireless technology is the expected standard for today.

Wireless audience response systems are most commonly produced as either infrared transmission devices or radio transmission devices.  The key determining factor as to which one to use is audience size.  Systems using infrared keypads (think TV remote for comparative purposes) have transmission limitations, and work best with small groups of less than 50, while the radio-based technology can handle up to 75,000. 

Technology does not stand still, and other systems are already making use of cell phone capability and PDA networking.  Voting by cell phone is making its initial entry into this service, enabling the presenter to send one-way or two-way messages to thousands of cell phones simultaneously.  Other technologies offer LAN (Local Area Network) and PDA voting, something of great value to the corporate world.  Expect both of these approaches to become the dominant players in just a few years.

Since infrared technology has become more reliable, and infrared devices cost less to manufacture than radio devices, this technology can be a good solution for low budget applications.  Limitations are a narrow bandwidth for data transmission, and distance to a receiving station.  Any light diffuses over distance, losing signal strength proportionately, so even if the receiver receives the signal, if it is too weak the data is lost in the transmission. Also, infrared can only handle a single-digit vote, another issue that limits the quality of response.  More on single-digit voting shortly.

Despite recommendations by some vendors who tend to overstate the capability of infrared, it does not work well when the distance between keypad and receiving unit is more than 50 feet.  Also, the placement of the receiving unit must be considered.  Not only will the IR keypads need line-of-sight to the receiving station, the receiving station will need to be near the presentation computer.  For example, if the presentation unit is at the back of the room and the receiving station is there with it, the audience must either bounce their infrared signal off the screen to go to the back of the room, or point it over their shoulder (which means the signal is probably being blocked by the person behind them). Just like your TV remote, a clear line to the receiver is a must.

Even with their higher expense, radio-based wireless systems are the more preferred choice.  Providing signal coverage over very large areas, they do not require line-of-sight access from the location of the keypad.  A radio-based system will have a range four to ten times greater than infrared, a substantial difference and necessary when polling large audiences.  Keypad size can be as small as a credit card up to the size of a handheld remote similar to those used for a television set.  Features vary with size, from the very simple up to, and including audio connections.  A typical basic system will have a receiving station with capability to handle up to 1500 keypads.  The receiver technology has advanced enough to where it is only slightly larger than a USB flash drive, and interfaces using a USB port. Using a system that offers multiple channels, thousands can be used even in the same room.

Radio broadcasting also comes with its problems, with signal interference being the most common.  Unlicensed RF (radio frequency) products such as cordless phones, wireless network hubs, Bluetooth devices, and similar applications all generate signals that can interfere with the audience response system.  One method of avoiding this interference is using a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum method of signal transmittal.  Essentially, a device will not transmit or receive on an interfering frequency long enough to cause a problem or be affected by it.  Another important feature to look for is time division multiplexing (TDM), which eliminates signal collisions at the receiver.  TDM assigns a communications “time slot” to each device, looking for a particular device signal at a time when multiple devices are sending data together. 

Also, you must choose between single-digit voting and multi-digit voting. Given the ever-increasing ability of participants to use advanced technologies, selecting a multi-digit voting system is the better way to go.  When audience response systems were first introduced, single-digit voting was the only option.  While still available, it is rapidly losing favor because of its limitation on response format.  For example, with single-digit technology, a simple question about a participant’s age could only be asked with choices offered within a range, i.e., a) less than 21; b) 21 to 28; c) 29 to 39; d) 40 and higher. Single-digit voting allows choosing only one of the answer options as a single digit (a, b, c or d). The tallied result may show that 35% of the audience is in the range of 21 to 28. However, this data is not precise. Everyone in this group could be 22, or 28, or anything in between.

Multi-digit voting enables a presenter to gather data in ways that could not be done easily before.  With multi-digit voting, each person could respond with a precise age, allowing the tabulated results to show the exact number of responses for each age.  Multi-digit technology allows having more than ten answers available, precise measurement and other possibilities as well.  Multiple answer selection, such as ranking numerous items by order of importance, choosing several options simultaneously, and multiple-digit answers are available to display information such as what your salary is, allowing you to key in a precise amount.  Systems are available that allow up to 16 characters in a response, along with individual and group messaging.

Another key factor is that audience response systems can be utilized in a wide range of methods for data communication.  Customer surveys, training, opinion response, and audience voting are just a few. After evaluating the needs of the users, you will probably find that the system must accommodate a multitude of presentation styles and preferences.  Depending on budget and personnel, a system may be selected that starts out with basic capabilities but that can grow with the experience of the users as they become more sophisticated in using the technology. 

Several small systems can be connected to a single computer to meet the needs of surveying a larger audience.  However, each small system needs to maintain its own identity, so a radio based system that allows you to change a keypad channel easily is a required feature. With this capability you can borrow extra keypads from another system, or easily merge all the systems into one.  When the event is over, you just change the channel selection back on the borrowed keypads.  You may want to color code the keypads for quick sorting.  Also consider the design of the keypad for battery access, availability of the battery, and cost per battery.  On average, a keypad battery is good for about a year, and an annual battery change is a good practice.

Polling speed is important in response systems. Signals sent from a small group of 50 could be gathered and processed in less than a second, while gathering the data from a group of 2000 could be done in 3-5 seconds.  Some product lines can even “time stamp” exactly when a particular signal was received for applications such as speed scoring accuracy and moment-to-moment polling. Keypad features should also include a visual “signal received” confirmation from the system controller, and each device should operate and communicate independently with the base unit.

Another attribute of an audience response system is just how it interfaces with the computer using a software program.  In most situations there are two choices, and each has its upsides and downsides.  You can use either a PowerPoint™ plug-in, or dedicated software designed specifically for your system. In general, the PowerPoint plug-in is preferred by the average user, while the dedicated software is the choice for those who are more advanced. 

With the plug-in software handling all aspects of the electronic voting, the user does nothing more than create the question and add a “polling” object to the slide. Plug-in applications take advantage of what the user probably already knows, and shortens the learning time significantly.  When the software recognizes a point where a polling slide has been inserted, it looks for data, and displays it as a graph when voting is closed.  However, plug-in graphs exist in Powerpoint’s memory space and are not exactly high quality graphics. 

On the other hand, for the power user, stand-alone software can produce very high quality graphics which are suitable for high end productions.  Typically written using the C, C++, or C# computer languages, they feature capabilities that are non-existent or very weak in the plug-in software.  This approach does take time to learn and master due to the complexity of the features, and the cost will be higher.  Factor in the probable need for training and the expense runs even higher.  For most applications, the stand-alone software approach for audience response systems just does not fit because of its complexity and cost.

Flexibility in using the data is a key factor when deciding which system to purchase.  Today’s more advanced software takes full advantage of the features of the Microsoft Office™ suite of programs.  Data can be moved to Excel™ for report creation, study guides made in Word™, and some plug-ins have an export wizard that allows data to be moved from MS Office into learning management systems or grade book software.  If the system you are looking at does not retain the data collected for later use, look for another system.

Audience response systems appear to be rather simple devices on the surface, but with today’s constantly expanding technology and customer demand, it is much more than an electronic version of the paper ballot.  Today, advanced keypads have become handsets with LCDs for full text input or logo/meeting theme display, include an integrated microphone for live audience participation (no more running up and down aisles with wireless microphones!), and internal memory. For systems using the smaller credit card-sized devices, each device could be assigned to an individual, and that person’s responses accurately recorded if so desired.  The card sends its own identification code with the data. 

If you are considering an audience response system, you should make an in-depth evaluation of the different systems, hardware, and software.  This has been only an introductory overview of the technology.  It is much more than simply receiving a signal and displaying it to a group; the ability to interactively communicate data, document opinion, and initiate change is a powerful tool for effective communication in any organization.  From the perspective of both presenter and audience, any form of communication today demands that data be effectively exchanged in order to achieve success.  An audience response system that is used to its maximum capability is a very powerful tool for effective communication.


About the Author
Bobb Sleezer, RBP, FBCA
Bobb Sleezer is the Manager of Visual Presentation Technology in the Department of Academic Affairs at the Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Delaware. He has been employed at several major universities and also in the private sector, working with digital imaging technologies.

Copyright 2007, The Journal of Biocommunication, All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents for VOLUME 33, NUMBER 2