Friday, November 18, 2011

Paper Tablet App for Livescribe Echo Smartpen

Being able to control your computer's cursor by writing on a piece of paper with a pen is kind of weird when you think about it. This is exactly what you can do with the Livescribe Echo Smartpen, if you purchase the $15 Paper Tablet App.

I wrote a fairly long post on the Pulse a while back, but here's some basic info on Livescribe pens if you don't want to read that whole thing: you write with these pens (below) on special paper and what you write and say can be recorded since there is a microphone in the pen and the paper tracks where you have written. You can click on parts of the paper to replay the audio recorded at that point and you can also upload and share the "pencasts." So the most common uses are for meeting or class notes and they can also be used to create pencasts as online tutorials. The videos on the Livescribe page are good to check out if you're not familiar.

Livescribe has two types of pens: the original Pulse (silver) and newer Echo (black). The main difference between the two is that the Echo connects to the computer via micro USB while the Pulse has to sit in a charging cradle, so the Echo can be used while connected to the computer charging.

I was not excited about the Pulse and the Livescribe software back when I got the Pulse, but it has gotten better:
  • You can now download the Livescribe desktop software from their site and install it on multiple computers, then the pen can be connected to any computer with the software.
  • I didn't have any problems getting started. It just took a while to download everything and then update the firmware of the pen. 
  • I'm not sure if I overlooked this or if it came about later, but you now have the option, as a viewer, to turn off the preview in a pencast, see what's coming in grey, or see the whole pencast at once. I found it very distracting to see a preview of what is coming. 
The main thing I still don't like is that you can't download an editable file.
  • This, of course, means you can't edit out any mistakes. 
  • You also can't upload it to YouTube, which helps make the video accessible to people with hearing disabilities by time coding a transcript with the audio to produce captions. As far as I can tell, Livescribe is completely ignoring the issue of captioning. When I Google "livescribe captioning" my old blog post is one of the top hits and the other main relevant page is about how to use a Livescribe pen to create captions (record the audio with the pen and then play it back really slowly so you can type it). 
Now, on to the Paper Tablet App! 

The Echo with the Paper Tablet app sort of combats my continuing issue with not being able to download an editable file because it allows the user to write on a piece of paper, yet it shows up on the computer screen and can be recorded with screencasting programs like Camtasia.

You may wonder why someone would want to do that. Normally I'd recommend a Wacom Bamboo tablet ($69) but some people really struggle with writing on a tablet like this because they have to write on it and then look at the computer screen. The Echo and Paper Tablet app allows them to write on paper and see it on the paper but still record it on the computer so it is editable and captionable.

The Paper Tablet app worked surprisingly well on Windows. Mouse control was very accurate and my handwriting showed up on the computer screen very true to what it looked like on the paper. My aspect ratio was a bit off but I couldn't figure out how to change it; their instructions didn't make sense to me.

I found the best way to record on a white background is just to open up a blank PowerPoint slide in presentation mode, right click to get the pointer options, turn on the pen, and then write on the slide. PowerPoint 2010 will keep the inking on the slide. This could be pretty cool for recording a face-to-face class; the instructor could have a bunch of blank slides ready (or have some skeletal info on them) and then write on the slides and save the PPT and upload it to D2L. You can also do this with a Wacom though.

Issue 1: Livescribe should not indicate that the Paper Tablet app is compatible with Mac because it is basically useless. I did the same thing with PowerPoint, but when I hit escape to get out of presentation mode, the inking was just gone, since there is apparently no way to save it in PPT 2011. My handwriting turned out really weird too; it was smooth on paper, but very angular on the computer screen. It looked like the writing of someone with bad arthritis.

Issue 2: The amount of usable space on the paper is kind of a funky thing to figure out. I first tried it with my notebook in portrait orientation and I had about the size of a postcard to write in. When I switched it to landscape, I had almost the whole page and I think that if I was able to figure out the aspect ratio I would have had the whole page. When I used it on the Mac I had about a 6" x 4" space. I have no idea why that was.

Issue 3: I did not like the heaviness and size of the pen. I spent probably an hour messing around with it, and my wrist still hurts today. The pen is quite big and I felt that I had to press hard on the paper. I strongly prefer writing with the thin and light Wacom Bamboo stylus. However, I am not normal: a few years ago, I broke my wrist badly and had surgery to basically screw it back together. It hardly ever bothers me anymore though.

Issue 4: If people are creating tutorials that take up more than one page of paper, they will have to do some editing in between because each page needs to be deactivated and then the new page needs to be activated and that will take a little time.

Issue 5: It is a little awkward to write with the cord in the way. It is not very flexible and is difficult to straighten out since it came bundled up. Even completely straightened out, it's still not very long, so you have to stay fairly close or get another one.

CONCLUSION: The Wacom Bamboo/Camtasia combo is still, I think, currently the best and most economical option ($69) for annotating/inking and recording a tutorial. If a Windows user (not a Mac user) really couldn't adjust to the Wacom, this Echo pen with the Paper Tablet app could be a decent substitute for a still reasonable amount of money ($120 for pen and app). It would be an especially good buy if the person was interested in using it for meeting notes and other quick tutorials using the Livescribe software to create pencasts.

The main issue is still the complete lack of a way to caption the pencasts when used as course content. Because of this, I can't recommend using Livescribe pencasts as tutorials unless a document was created with the transcript and whatever additional visuals (such as diagrams) were necessary to understand the transcript and this would get time consuming. Simply providing a transcript would technically make the pencast accessible according to the letter of the law, but it is likely that a lot of the meaning would get lost without the visuals too. Equal access really means captioning...and technically should include a verbal description for people who are blind or have low vision.

*The one exception to my lack of recommendation would be foreign language or other subjects in which hearing is pretty much necessary to learn the content. 

I hope that this post is out of date soon because something comes along soon that completely changes this situation. It seems crazy that there is no good, reasonably priced option to annotate/ink directly on an electronic device and record it. The iPad has a ShowMe app which is probably the closest thing on a tablet. I just don't like having to use my finger or an iPad stylus and, of course, not everyone has an iPad. A tablet PC would be great, but they are still quite expensive. I have a SMART podium in my office that does this great with a nice thin stylus, but those run about $3500. I'll keep looking!

1 comment:

  1. Hi April!

    Since the pencast is actually multimedia, I believe that to be Section 508 compliant, a transcript and synchronous captions are both required to meet the letter of the law.

    To solve that issue, we love ShowMe. Here's our simple process to a captioned tutorial

    1. We write the steps of concepts on pieces of paper, (or a classroom whiteboard as we lecture!) taking a series of photos with our iPad, then we Import the images one at a time into the ShowMe interface.

    2. We narrate our tutorial, highlighting elements for inter active emphasis using our finger or the stylus.

    3. We pause ShowMe when we are ready for the next step, and we erase the highlights.

    4. We import the image that includes the next step.

    5. We repeat this process until the ShowMe tutorial is complete.

    6. Upload (the longer the video the longer it takes to render) to ShowMe.

    7. When it has finished the 4 step automated process, a high quality Mp4 is available for download from our ShowMe "edit ShowMe screen.

    8. Upload the MP4 to YouTube.

    9. Recording on our iPad in a relatively quiet office, we have actually had great luck with accuracy using YouTube auto transcribe/caption for a fairly accurate caption file. (about 75% to as high as 90% with a microphone earbud )

    10. Until the user channel caption editor in YouTube is fully implemented, we download the .sbv file, use another captioning tool to make a few necessary corrections, save an additional version without timestamps as a transcript, and then we re-upload the edited caption file to YouTube.

    This is a super-fast and easy path to 508 compliant step by step whiteboard tutorials that anyone can learn to do in no time. Tweaking the captions is the only slight challenge the first couple of times for newbies to the process.