BUSINESS PRESENTATIONS: interaction stations

CD-Rom-based multimedia could transform the conference scene if it wasn’t so costly and time-consuming to produce. Simon Rines assesses the other solutions for making live events interactive

Over the past ten years the corporate conference industry has become more aware of the need to involve audiences. New, interactive features on multimedia systems can be used for presentations, claim the equipment and software suppliers. But are they failing to understand the difference between one-to-one presentations using desktop equipment and the dynamic of the conference room? If so, what equipment is available to make events more exciting and productive?

Lois Jacobs, managing director of production company HP:ICM, has reservations about the use of desktop multimedia for conferences: “CD-Rom based multimedia is sometimes expensive and always time-consuming to produce. It comes into its own in museums, exhibitions or travelling roadshows when it will be used again and again.”

CD-Rom can store an enormous amount of audio-visual information on a single disc with quick access to the images. For the conference industry, however, there are drawbacks. First, the quality of video on CD-Rom is not very good – especially when blown up on the big screen. Second, CD-Rom writers – the equipment needed to input and change material – are much more expensive than the standard playback units.

Given that changes usually need to be made to presentations at the last minute, conference producers will opt for computer graphics equipment, which offers high quality output and instant changes, rather than CD-Rom. Finally, the benefit of having vast amounts of video material on call to respond to an audience’s interest requires that footage to be shot and edited, which is very expensive.

“If you want an element of choice in conferences similar to that available on CD-Rom-based multimedia, there may be cheaper and more effective ways to achieve it,” says Jacobs.

One of the most popular technical solutions for making live events interactive is to use audience response systems. The equipment comprises a small keypad, which is connected to a computer, for each delegate. When a response is made to a multiple choice question, the computer collates the information and feeds it to a video output for display in either numeric or graphical form.

HP:ICM recently used the system at a high-level strategy meeting for a major plc. “The event was split into five breakout groups,” says Jacobs. “Each had to examine a main theme and come up with five priorities for action (a total of 25 priorities). These were then rated by the whole group using the interactive keypads. The five which received the top scores are now the key issues for the business in the coming year.”

Interactive keypads have been used for about ten years. Recently, however, there has been a lot of excitement about the possibility that they could be linked to other equipment so that voting responses can be followed by instant graphics relating to an audience’s interest.

“People tend to produce multimedia for one-to-one use,” says Peter Knowles, sales and marketing director of IML, a supplier of audience response systems. “But it is becoming possible to use it in group interaction. If you produce a series of scenarios and ask the audience which route they want to take, it is possible to respond with any one of a number of presentations. Obviously the more options that are available, the more material needs to be produced to respond.

“For this reason the system is best used for roadshows and multiple presentations where it is likely that there will be a wider variety of people interested in different issues. This makes it more cost-effective to produce the extra material because it will probably all be used. It also allows you to address the issues of interest rather than simply make one generic presentation to everyone.”

As Knowles suggests, the method is still not cost-effective for one-off events because a large proportion of the video or graphics produced is unlikely to be used. There are also several technical factors which limit the conference industry’s desire to plunge into the world of multimedia.

“The industry is not quite at the point where it can run highly sophisticated multimedia events without spending a lot of money,” says Mark Wallace, managing director of production company MWA.

There are other reasons why conference organisers are wary of going too far down a path in which the audience has control.

“You cannot allow the audience to dictate proceedings,” says Wallace. “But it is important that they have a say in what happens. In most cases the approach should be to decide an agenda but to allow the audience to lead themselves through it. In this way they are actually being deceived into thinking they are in control but in reality they are just changing the order – everything that needs to be discussed is, but the level of interest is greatly increased.”

A good example of such an approach is being planned by MWA for a series of events run for a top car manufacturer this autumn. Dealers will be invited to the seminars in which video clips of customers discussing their experiences of the showrooms will be shown. At a certain point the videos will be stopped. The dealers will then be asked to use keypads to answer multiple-choice questions about what the customer will say next.

“We know that nine-tenths of the dealers will fail to judge the customer’s response,” says Wallace. “By continuing the tape after the voting results have been shown we can demonstrate to them in an interesting and dramatic way what the customer really thinks. It is then possible to look at dealers’ responses and discuss them.”

The need for human control over a multimedia event – for instance, with a facilitator moving the proceedings along as required – is acknowledged by Paul Bridgland, managing director of conference multimedia specialists Creation Station. “The term interactive conference can be used to describe a show where the interactive element is performed by a live operator backstage, using a suitable software package and medium.

“This would be the preferred method for most production companies since it is important to have complete manual control of an event – machines are not infallible and humans are more adept at improvising and/or making a contingency decision instantly.”

Creation Station was involved in such an exercise when it recently provided conference graphics for the Langkawi International Dialogue on Smart Partnerships hosted by the government of Malaysia and Lord Prior, chairman of GEC. The objective was to discuss and formulate plans to encourage strategic trading alliances between companies, particularly in Asia.

“Bearing in mind the nature and objectives of the event, it needed to be interactive,” says Bridgland. “Throughout the day delegates were split into workshop groups from which key points were established. These points were fed into a backstage computerised presentation system and displayed almost instantly on the large screen as part of the presentation. On day two the entire programme was re-arranged in response to the delegates’ views on day one. The equipment on-site allowed us to respond to those changes without any difficulty.”

Crown Business Communications ran a roadshow for the DTI two years ago. As part of the DTI’s objective of informing small to medium-sized businesses about how to be more competitive, it ran a roadshow entitled “Winning in the 90s” sponsored by the computer manufacturer Compaq as well as Microsoft. The sponsorship enabled Crown to provide each delegate with a networked laptop PC. Using the software Windows for Workgroups, delegates were able to view video and graphics, choose their own course of action and work within small networked groups. The result was a high level of interactivity and a strong focus on the particular interests of those present.

Until desktop multimedia equipment becomes cheaper, more powerful and more integrated with other conference technology, its use will be restricted. Even then its interactive features will be limited by the amount of costly video material clients are willing to commission and the degree to which they are prepared to hand over control to audiences.

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