Reinventing The Tech Conference Experience

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If you had to name one thing that could have been better at the last conference or meetup you attended, what would it be? I bet you’d say that the content or the interaction could have been better in some way. I created Onslyde to solve this problem. It’s a free service and open-source project that (hopefully) will make public speaking easier and conferences better.

The motivation for the project came from my own speaking engagements in the tech industry. I wanted to see how many people in the audience actually agreed or disagreed with what I was saying. I also wanted to leverage their experience and knowledge to create a better learning environment.

Presentations today are mostly unidirectional, with a single presenter giving information to the audience. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now, with the ubiquity of mobile devices, everyone in the room can contribute to the conversation and make it better. Many books have been written on the topic of collective wisdom. In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki states:

“… a diverse collection of independently deciding individuals is likely to make certain types of decisions and predictions better than individuals or even experts.”

For the past year, I have been putting this thesis to the test, enabling people to interact with and change the content that I deliver. It’s been a lot of fun and work, and now you get to see the result.

Ratings And Feedback

When we look at current systems of rating and feedback at conferences, most of them are reactive, meaning that participants rate the session after it’s over. This is why most people don’t even rate sessions, unless they are asked or forced to by the doorkeeper. Those who do rate sessions might not care to be accurate (giving all 5s or 4s and then hurrying to the coffee line). Other attendees might have enjoyed the majority of the talk, but then got upset by the last slide or by the way the speaker ended the talk.

If these people decided to rate the presentation, how many stars do you think they would give? Perhaps 3 or 4 stars because of their anger at the end, but who really knows? Without context, a low rating doesn’t tell the speaker which part of the talk an attendee didn’t like.

Real-time feedback gives context to a rating, making traditional feedback unnecessary. Conference organizers and speakers no longer have to rely solely on Twitter hash tags and reactive ratings to see how well things went. We can now visualize exactly how the audience felt at any millisecond of a presentation.

Real-Time Ratings With Onslyde

Giving a presentation that allows for real-time feedback is like riding a bicycle down a really steep hill for the first time. You have no idea whether you will crash and burn or come out with an adrenaline-filled scream at the other end. And it’s just as much fun for the audience.

With Onslyde, you get an accurate measure from the audience while you’re speaking. If you see that a lot of people are disagreeing with what you’re saying, you can adapt: Ask audience members for their thoughts, or maybe move on to another topic. When you’re presenting, actually seeing how the audience collectively feels in real time and then responding accordingly is a very cool experience.

The worst thing a presenter can do is tell the audience something it already knows or say something totally wrong. The audience wants to be intrigued and entertained by you. But too many speakers seem to think this requires GIFs of cats. Well, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun but I’m an adult now, and I don’t go to thousand-dollar conferences to look at funny pictures of cats. I do want to be able to challenge you, engage with the content and tell you when you’re wrong.

So, let’s talk about how the audience indicates whether you’re right or wrong. Onslyde’s remote control gives audience members between two and four ways to interact, depending on the type of session. It works for both normal presentations and panel discussions.

For presentations:

  • Any slide can be agreed or disagreed with.
  • Presenters can poll the audience by asking a question and giving two answers to choose from.
  • Remote devices are updated with content for each slide.

pres-remote-250-opt

For panel discussions:

  • Anyone (either panelist or audience member) can be agreed or disagreed with.
  • Votes are on a rolling average, meaning that they expire after 15 seconds (or a time specified by the moderator).
  • Any audience member can request to speak. This option will add them to a queue on the main screen.

panel-remote-250-opt

All remote devices receive real-time updates based on the slide or current speaker. In individual presentations, the speaker can specify content or images to send to all remotes per slide. For example, if a bulleted list is on the current slide, you could send it to the remotes by adding class="send" to the markup:

<section class="slide">
	<ul class="send">
	<li>Onslyde makes you a better presenter.</li>
	</ul>
</section>

We’ll go over the technical details in the next section. For now, note how easy it is to broadcast markup to everyone’s remotes.

Edge Conf, hosted at Google’s New York office in October 2013, was the first time ever when the audience participated in real time (via Onslyde) during an entire conference.

edge1-panel-detail-500-opt

What If There’s No Wi-Fi?

At this point, you might be thinking that this is a cool idea, but what about the 99% of conferences that have shaky or no Wi-Fi connectivity?

A presentation will work with or without an Internet connection; however, with no connection, it will just be like a normal presentation, and the audience would not be able to interact.

If you have a smartphone with a tetherable data plan, you can tether your laptop and enable Onslyde to connect from a mobile phone. It might sound crazy, but the lightweight messages that are sent across the wire still allow the presentation to run smoothly.

Even if Wi-Fi at a conference is unstable, the audience can always connect to the presentation with their mobile device’s data plan. I’ve personally given six or seven presentations with Onslyde and haven’t run into any issues so far.

Below you can see the network statistics from a talk I gave earlier this year. Even though the conference had stable Wi-Fi, attendees were connecting through their mobile data plan:

visits-by-provider-opt

Some have suggested bringing SMS into the picture, as a fallback. This would enable attendees to vote by sending text messages to the server. If you have other ideas, please leave them in the comments!

Building An Interactive Presentation

The Onslyde framework plugs into any HTML-based presentation system. For now, it supports presentations written with the following:

Currently, there is no nice WYSIWYG tool for building a slide deck. A tiny bit of HTML knowledge is required to build a presentation, but that’s it — no JavaScript or other programming. This is good because you don’t have to log into the system to edit your deck minutes before going on stage. You can change the markup at any time, and you will be ready to present after refreshing the browser.

The following use cases show how to add interactive elements to a presentation.

Audience Members Vote on (i.e. Agree or Disagree With) Any Slide

This comes out of box, no set-up required. Onslyde is built around “slide groups.” “Agree” and “Disagree” votes can only be given once in a slide group. This lets you focus on a particular topic with multiple slides and not be bombarded with votes on each screen.

<section class="slide-group">
	<section class="slide">
		<p>Onslyde makes you a better presenter.</p>
	</section>
</section>

buttons-opt
The buttons above will become active once the presenter moves to a new slide group.

Ask Unlimited Questions With Two Answers

To create an onscreen poll, use the following markup:

<section class="slide-group">

	<section class="slide" data-option="master">
		<h3 class="send">
		What is your favorite JavaScript framework?
		</h3>
	</section>

	<section class="slide" data-option="jquery">
		<div class="send">
		Time to talk about jQuery!
		</div>
	</section>

	<section class="slide" data-option="querySelector">
		<div class="send">
		Let’s go into more detail about core JavaScript!
		</div>
	</section>

</section>

By adding the markup above to your presentation, the bar chart in the following image will be automatically created and populated as votes are submitted:

favorite-javascript-framework-500-opt

The buttons at the top will illuminate on the remote controls, and attendees may start voting:

start-voting-opt

Send Content to All Devices at Any Time

Notice how the remote control’s image shows the title of the poll? As mentioned, this is because we added class="send" to the parent element of the heading.

<section class="slide">
	<h3 class="send">
	What is your favorite JavaScript framework?
	</h3>
…

start-voting-2-opt
The sent markup will appear below the button options.

You can also send something completely different than what is shown by the projector. Instead of sending the title of the poll, you could send the names of other JavaScript libraries for attendees to research:

<section class="slide">
	<h3>
	What is your favorite JavaScript framework?
	</h3>

	<div class="none">
		<ul class="send">
		<li>Zepto</li>
		<li>xui</li>
		<li>…</li>
		</ul>
	</div>

Raffle or Giveaway: Random Selection of Audience Member

To me, one of the funnest parts of this tool is giving away swag at the end of a talk. You can randomly select anyone who is connected by adding the following link to your slide deck:

<a href="javascript:onslyde.slides.roulette()">Pick a winner</a>

winner-opt

Just place the link on the final slide and click it at the end of your talk. Everyone’s mobile device will flash red; then, the winner’s will turn yellow. Continue clicking to pick more people at random.

Best Practices

The easiest way to get started with each feature is to focus on how you want the audience to interact with you and your content. Here are some good rules of thumb that I have learned using this tool:

  • Start each presentation with a poll on the first or second slide. This allows the audience to get their device ready, get connected and start giving their opinion. It’s fun to pose a controversial question about your presentation topic and watch the votes pour in.
  • Polls can solicit a “Yes” or “No” feeling from the audience or go deeper. If you ask a question like, “Which JavaScript framework do you use?” and then give options for “AngularJS” or “Backbone”, you will be able to fork the slides. This is why preparing the slides beforehand is more rewarding. Onslyde will detect the majority vote, and when you go to the next slide, the losing slides will be removed from the presentation (temporarily) and only the slides from the winning option will be shown.

Getting Started

Presentations can be created at onslyde.com. And the open-source back end that manages a presentation’s feedback is hosted on GitHub. Anyone can run the server and host their own instance of the entire Onslyde stack if they wish.

All of the features mentioned are integrated in each demo to show use cases. To begin your first presentation, go to the “Getting Started” section, where you will have the option to run a demo presentation or sign in and create a private one.

onslyde.getting-started-500-opt
(Large view)

After you’ve signed in, the “Getting Started” page will give you options for setting up a poll. After hitting the “Preview” button, you must save the HTML to your computer in order to edit and present the slides.

setting-up-500-opt
(Large view)

An Onslyde presentation can be run anywhere. Essentially, it’s the same as saving a Keynote or PowerPoint presentation on your computer. Just click on the HTML file and run it from a Web browser — no need to install anything or run it from a server.

Regarding Keynote and PowerPoint

For those of you who use non-HTML slide decks, such as Keynote and PowerPoint, there are plans to create a transparent overlay on top of Windows and Mac OS X. This will allow presenters to use any presentation tool and to collect feedback in real time.

Understanding Audience Feedback

After your talk is over, you can view the analytics for your session. The votes for each slide are recorded so that you can track your performance at a fine-grained level.

chart1-500-opt

For questions that the audience voted on, each option is recorded, along with the “Agree” and “Disagree” votes for each poll.

chart2-500-opt

The other important pieces of data come from Google Analytics, including engagement times and what kinds of devices and mobile networks were used.

analytics-500-opt
Google Analytics showed that real-time feedback was provided not just from the people in the room. (Large view)

From the above image, we can see that 281 iOS devices and approximately 113 Android devices were used at Edge Conf. Because the event was streamed live, over twice as many unique devices appeared as there were people in the room — people were participating and providing real-time feedback as they watched the live stream from their home or office around the world!

One other cool piece to this analytics puzzle is mapping voting times to the video. Edge Conf was streamed live, and the videos were subsequently added to YouTube. After finding a reference point in the video and calculating the starting time, we were able to map the charts to the videos. If you clicked on any data point from a session, the video would skip to that voting period. Try it out for yourself.

voting-period-500-opt
We were able to map the voting times to the conference videos. (Large view)

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, so much more valuable data can be pulled from the conferences we attend. Not only can we get an accurate snapshot of how speakers performed and how audience members felt, but we can change the learning experience for everyone.

This project is a use case for the mobile Web and a playground for the new technologies that are available to modern Web browsers, such as WebSockets and WebRTC. Many other companies and conferences provide similar services using native apps and proprietary hardware, but the convenience of opening a Web browser and being exposed to a new level of education and interaction is immeasurable.

Many thanks to Andrew Betts for helping me with this article and providing great feedback. He is also responsible for most of the features in the Onslyde panel and remote interfaces.

(al, ea)

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Wesley Hales is a software developer at Apigee, working from North GA. He’s served in a number of roles over the last several years, from implementing multiple JSRs and leading communities at Red Hat, to leading local communities and building the second largest HTML5 user group in the world in Atlanta. He is the author of HTML5 and JavaScript Web Apps and the creator of many open source projects – most notably onslyde and loadreport.js.

  1. 1

    Let’s not reinvent the conference experience if there is nothing wrong with it in the first place.

    Yes, there are some speakers that are better and some that are worse, but that’s the way things are. Your gimmick is a lovely idea, but it will not turn a rubbish presentation into a brilliant one. If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if an unexperienced speaker just got more and more nervous as the disagree ratings increase.

    What’s the solution? Better preperation on part of the speakers and experience – the old fashioned way. No need for gimmicky “reinventions” that take the audience’s focus away from the speaker and turn it to the device they are holding in their hands.

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    • 2

      Christopher Butler

      November 20, 2013 7:23 am

      Definitely a valid point. As I read this, I thought, sure, this might be good in some situations, but I don’t think this is really what is at the top of my list of things I’d want to fix at conferences. And, I completely agree that an app is not the solution to bad presentations. It will only erode what is already to be very weak attention.

      I think the sort of cohesion and attention that might be lacking could be facilitated in plenty of ways, but most of them are outside of the standard content session (see my comment below).

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    • 3

      Tim – Saying nothing’s wrong with the conference experience is simply a wrong statement. As a presenter, 5 star ratings don’t work and they rarely give me any useful feedback. As an attendee, I want to learn something useful. If the speaker is or isn’t giving me useful info, then I want to tell them. It helps everyone.

      There are cases where this tool doesn’t work, for example lectures or rehearsed talks that have been given many times – or simply for times where the speaker doesn’t care what the audience thinks.

      If you are an “unexperienced speaker” who will get more nervous when the audience disagrees with you, I’d advise you not to use the tool and grow a thicker skin. Giving a talk is a huge step for professionals in any field, and people are usually there to listen and help, not bash.

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      • 4

        Christopher Butler

        November 20, 2013 7:56 am

        Great point, Wesley. Having given many talks at this point, deeper feedback would be much appreciated. Whether that’s via an app or even a feedback card handed out to attendees (I’ve gotten great insights from those in the past).

        Another point to volley back at Tim: I’m with you that I’d want to avoid the audience all having their heads buried in device screens, but, this is already the case as many are either taking notes or sharing snippets of what they’re hearing/seeing on Twitter, FB, etc.

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        • 5

          You’re right about the audience having their head down on a laptop, phone, etc. in most cases. So why not give them what they want?
          The problem with twitter, Facebook, and other social channels is that people are giving their opinions publicly. There have been many studies on how people give a more honest opinion anonymously, and that is what onslyde allows.

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      • 6

        We can definitely agree that this is not suitable for a great number of speaking events. There might very well be niches in which it could be a valid option and would actually enrich the experience (i.e. the postives outweigh the negatives – and there are real negatives!)

        “I bet you’d say that the speaker or content could have been better in some way. Think back to the last boring presentation you had to sit through. Maybe that investment of time could have paid off if the presenter knew you felt this way.”

        I simply find the implication astonishing that giving real-time feedback to the speaker (read: clicking options) somehow resolves the actual problem – which couldn’t be further from the truth. Giving a good speech/presentation is hard work, takes a lot of preparation time and requires practice/experience – gimmicks that distract from the actual talk (and presenter) don’t solve this very fundamental problem.

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        • 7

          It’s not about devaluing the content that the speaker is delivering with a gimmick. There is no perfect presentation, nor does the speaker know the audience’s skill level or prior knowledge. This tool is a complement that allows for better content matching to a random audience.

          The cool thing is that approach has been tested in many scenarios with various speaker experience levels, and the crowd has liked it and voted every time.

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    • 8

      A very good point. Although I have to disagree with the statement that there’s nothing wrong with conference experience.
      Presentations require a lot of time and practicing to come to life. Showing the feedback to the presenter during the presentation in real-time is pointless but saving the data for future analysis is genius. But the choice of “agree” and “disagree” buttons is rather deceiving in my opinion. The presenter can this way identify at which point the audience didn’t enjoy their presentation but the lack of qualitative feedback is still there. A better choice of options which would be more suitable would be “exciting”, “boring”, “obnoxious”, “engaging” etc. (I’ve got inspired by the TED website rating system.) This way the presenter could change their presentation according to the feedback.
      A very good concept anyway!

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  2. 9

    Just a note; the link in paragraph two is broken (https://onslyde.com/ –> http://onslyde.com/).

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  3. 11

    Christopher Butler

    November 20, 2013 7:16 am

    Having attended and organized conferences, I recently had an idea that I’d love to see put in practice.

    Often, the social component of conferences (mixers, cliques, etc.) actually becomes an obstruction to some attendees getting the most out of the experience.

    I’d love to see conferences put together a group of conference “R.A.s” (like in college) that each have a list of attendees to “shepherd”. In advance of the conference, the “RA” contacts everyone on his/her list and introduces him/herself, gathers information (what are you hoping to get out the experience, what do you want to see in the city while you are here, who are you hoping to meet, etc.) and provides some basic programming that alleviates some of the social intimidation/burden from people on the list. This might look like:

    - initial meet and greet
    - structured mealtimes
    - discussions around sessions
    - extracurricular activities

    All of this would of course be optional. Surely some people on the “RA’s” list would not want to be obligated to stick with the group. But I’ve met and received feedback from many people who struggle with wanting to go deeper at a conference but being intimidated by the standard networking and cocktail hours enough that they end up hiding out in their hotel rooms between and after sessions.

    Just an idea, but one I think could make a major difference for lots of people who are only getting a portion of the value they could be getting from conferences (particularly in the design and tech space).

    Great piece. It’s really good to be questioning this stuff.

    - CB

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  4. 12

    Public Speaking is not a popularity contest.

    And it’s OK to disagree with the speaker, that doesn’t make the speaker or yourself a bad person. Different view points and approaches are what make the industry great.

    The rest is just hyperbole and distraction.

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    • 13

      Nobody said anything about a popularity contest. Wouldn’t you rather be disagreed with in person and have the chance to react, than be disagreed with on twitter and not have the chance to change anything for that individual?

      It’s about empowering the audience and making the conversation go both ways. This is the problem with the current industry, everyone has been programmed to think that the speaker knows everything and that the audience is only there to listen.

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  5. 14

    Interesting idea. I haven’t been to too many conferences where having an agree/disagree to each slide would be a good thing I have to say, so that aspect of it I can’t really see being of much benefit. The talks I like are those thought provoking ones where I don’t immediately know whether I agree or disagree. Or even where there are arguments where agreeing is not necessarily the point. This is just my feeling, I don’t speak for anyone else.

    Where I can see the use is where the speaker may want a really interactive session with the audience with lots of voting etc. – that could be quite interesting.

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    • 15

      Good point about thought provoking talks. But how many times within 40-60 minutes can you be put into this state of wonder? Chances are that 70% of the talk would be something you could agree or disagree with.

      Aside from agree/disagree part of this tool allows the speaker to survey the audience with a poll. I can tell you from experience that more people feel comfortable voting anonymously than raising their hands. It’s the common classroom scenario where people are insecure and don’t want to raise their hand if they don’t know something.

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  6. 16

    Anthony Garritano

    November 21, 2013 7:11 am

    I’m shocked at the amount of negative reactions this is getting; I think this is a GREAT idea!

    This project enables conferences to feel more like a conversation. It allows the speaker to get a better understanding of their audience and thus talk about things that are more relevant (you’re Angular vs. Backbone example is excellent). I’m all for this.

    I’m interested to see where this goes and how it is used, great job!

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  7. 18

    I get the polls part. People have been using polls to get audiences involved for many years and this could be a nice use of technology to achieve that. What I don’t totally understand is agreeing/disagreeing on slides or sets of slides.

    If a presenter is talking about a subject and most people are agreeing with him/her what does that really tell them? They obviously think it’s a good idea/subject or else they wouldn’t be speaking about it. I guess there’s a bit of validation but they may very well be speaking about this idea/subject because it’s already a validated idea or they have validated it themselves and are now spreading the word so to speak.

    If most disagree what is the presenter’s next steps? Do they abandon the talk? Do they try to wing it and go another direction? Or are they supposed to have many different directions thought of in case they need to deviate?

    And what if its a somewhat 50/50 split? That’s probably the most confounding, what does this tell the presenter? There are some other issues like even more messing around with your device instead of paying attention (although this may be moot since most people are probably already buried in their laptops/tablets/phones which is kind of a shame). Maybe I’m just not fully understanding the product, I’m not sure.

    Thanks for the article.

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    • 19

      “If a presenter is talking about a subject and most people are agreeing with him/her what does that really tell them? ”

      I speak from my own personal experience with the tool: First, I don’t pay a ton of attention to the agree/disagree votes while I’m speaking. When I get in the zone and am delivering information to an audience, it’s hard to pull out and do on the fly analysis of how I’m performing. But, just the fact of knowing that people are engaged with my talk is rewarding. If I see a lot of disagreements, I’ll stop the talk and ask the audience why they disagree. It usually starts a really good conversation and allows me as a speaker to learn something from them.

      It really comes down to each speaker individually – and how you want to interact with the audience.

      Each feature of onslyde can be used a la carte, so it’s up to your imagination.

      “If most disagree what is the presenter’s next steps? Do they abandon the talk?”
      Never! You can choose to ignore the feedback and use the analytics to make your next talk better. As I said in a previous comment, the audience (usually) is not there to bash you as a presenter – and it’s up to you to open up the conversation.

      You really have to try it to believe it, but every talk I give with Onslyde, I get at least 10 or 15 people in the hallway (or twitter) telling me how cool it was to interact.

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  8. 20

    How does Onslyde work with internal presentations where content may be considered confidential. I didn’t see information on how this can be completely hosted without the onslyde servers.

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  9. 23

    For a site/tool that is to be used by a wide audience but fails on IE?

    Non starter for me.

    0
  10. 25

    This kind of reminds me of how teachers with “clickers” in the class room to get answers directly from students.

    I think this idea has it’s place … it’s funny at a recent conference I was presenting at the organizers had a special twitter hash tag (like most do I assume) for my session. Some of the attendees wanted me to do something mid way through my presentation … the problem is I didn’t see it until I was done. My content wasn’t something where I could stop and look at my cell phone, also there was limited time for my talk to begin with.

    Wesley does have a point, it’s hard to get the 5 star rating and it usually only takes one thing to turn off the audience member … but I think part of this falls on the presentation to write a clear summary of the presentation and give a correct title to set expectation.

    While most conferences will poll the attendees at the end, sometimes I will just ask for the feedback from the audience directly … most are very honest and will give you reasons, not an somewhat arbitrary scale of 1 through 5.

    Interesting topic and project, I wish you luck with it.

    -J

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  11. 26

    Nice work. I’ve been thinking of writing something like this since I first started using revealjs, but as we all know, there’s a world of difference between thinking and actually doing! While there might be some discussion about the usefulness of knowing whether people agree at any time, a similar up more directly actionable metric would be to know whether the audience thought you were going into too much or too little detail on a subject. That could be particularly useful when your not sure the technical level of an audience for example.

    I’ll have to give this a try soon.

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  12. 27

    Just wanted to make a note about the “no wifi” section. When I got there I was thinking “Great, he’s gonna talk about AdHoc wifi!” but then you kinda just went on to say you’re SOL.

    Why not connect all the devices together via an adHoc wifi setup where you simply only need a router and a phone that connects to wifi. You can have an offline setting and be done with it. Just a thought. I’ve set up adHoc wifi networks in a number of locations from empty warehouses with a generator to conference rooms.

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    • 28

      Good idea Lindsey, and I actually brought a router to my first Onslyde talk just to be safe. I will say that ad-hoc networks are a great alternative to no wifi, I just wanted the actual attendee connection process to be as painless and short as possible.

      At the beginning of each talk, I ask the audience to connect and everyone is heads down typing in the address. Just like any classroom, there are a few that don’t get the address right or can’t see it, so that alone is a 60 second (or more) process.

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  13. 29

    David Foley did a variant on this at CascadiaJS a couple of weeks ago, showing the flow of approval/disapproval under his slides, and the lack of reliable WiFi definitely impacted the ratings. Still, it proved a point.

    http://2013.cascadiajs.com/speakers/dave-foley

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  14. 30

    This is brilliant on so many levels. Foremost two are that it’s instant feedback for a presenter, and most importantly, it engages the audience by making them part of the presentation!

    0

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