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by Sarah J.F. Braley | January 01, 2011

How often do you use in-room polling to bolster a session? A) All the time. B) Sometimes. C) You can do that?

Those still relying on a show of hands should note that technology has made it easier and more affordable than ever to capture the opinions of a group. Audience-response systems (ARS) have become more sophisticated and portable, allowing presenters to ask questions on the fly and attendees to get involved in a program's content.

"The groups that make the most of the systems know all the ways you can use them," says Sheila Hura, marketing director for Youngstown, Ohio-based Turning Technologies, which offers several options for gathering the information. "You can use it for surveys and evaluations. You can use it to engage attendees. You can use it for gaming. You can collect valuable information that you can publish after the event. You can grab it all with one tool."

The systems come in a number of configurations, from high-end options offering unquestionably secure results gathered with handheld devices to distribute to all attendees, to ease-of-use choices where attendees pull out their own cell phones to cast their votes.

Among the options A number of suppliers offer ARS services. The following are some of the options on the market.

IML Worldwide. A popular polling choice is the IML Communicator, which allows standard and text-message voting and has a basic microphone allowing the speaker to take questions from the audience.

"I think IML's devices in their current state are the best out there. They don't accept answers just by vote, but also by open-ended text questions," says Ray Hansen, a Minneapolis-based technology adviser who recently launched Appevision to help planners find the right technology tools for their meetings.

When the need for secure voting is paramount -- including shareholder voting, board elections and the like -- IML Worldwide stands behind its dependability. Devices also can be individually assigned to attendees to count attendance for crediting purposes.

Hotly anticipated is the IML Connector, a multifunction tool coming in April. Aside from the keypad and the texting capability, the IML Connector has a more powerful microphone, eliminating the need for a fleet-footed helper to run the mike around the room. An extra feature is a speaker, allowing attendees to listen to simultaneous interpretation through the handset or headphones.  

The U.K.-based IML has offices throughout the world. The system can be purchased or rented; contact the company for pricing (877-646-2455; imlaudienceresponse.com).

Reply Technologies.
This company's five handheld devices, manufactured by the Holland, Mich.-based Fleetwood Group, also are able to handle secure voting and credit-tracking, aside from the numerous polling applications.

Reply's products cover a variety of needs. For instance, the Reply Plus allows voting across multiple rooms and can present 20 answer options, while the Reply Mini is a bare-bones keypad allowing five answer options. No computer is needed when the devices are paired with the handheld base unit, called the Reply Solo, which gathers the answers and displays the results.

Four resellers offering the Reply systems are Padgett Communications in Clearwater, Fla.; Innovision Inc. of Commerce, Mich.; Audience Response Systems in Evansville, Ind.; and Cresskill, N.J.-based Communications Technology International.

Turning Technologies. This Youngs­town, Ohio-based company offers credit-card-sized transmitters, such as the Response Card RFLCD, which send responses directly to the presenter's Power­Point slides using a USB device. Each transmitter has a small LCD screen that indicates which answer the attendee has chosen. According to marketing director Sheila Hura, the system can run surveys in 82 rooms within close proximity.

New to the service is ResponseWare polling for smartphones. Questions are geared to appear on the phone at the same time that they are appearing on the room's screen, and results are displayed on the phone's screen, as well.

The rental of the Turning Technologies system can cost as little as $4 a person per day.

BusyEvent. The ARS from this company works with cell phones, Wi-Fi devices (laptops, iPads and iPod Touches, for example) and rentable keypads, and the data can be fed into a larger event-networking system, called BeLinker.

"Probably one of the biggest challenges an event planner has to face is the logistics, distributing the keypads, collecting them later," says BusyEvent president Brian Slawin. "Here, attendees can respond on any device that the planner chooses."  

For just the survey module, the price runs from $3 to $5 per person; adding networking elements, such as the lead-management tool, adds to the cost. Contact the company (busyevent.com) for details.

Poll Everywhere. This cell-phone-based service is the budget choice, hovering at about 20 to 30 cents per participant for a month's worth of surveying, according to Jeff Vyduna, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based company. Text-messaging is the crux of the Poll Everywhere process.

The aim here is ease of use. "We're trying to build a service where meeting planners won't need any training," says Vyduna. "We don't want people to need online courses to learn our software."

As long as Wi-Fi is available, responses to Poll Everywhere surveys also can be sent in by laptops, iPads and iPod Touches. And answers can be tweeted and still come straight into the presenter's PowerPoint slides in seconds (there's a demo here: bit.ly/hM005m).