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The iPad Two Months In and One Show Opened

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It is a little over two months since I got my hands on the iPad (WiFi model). I did an update 1 month in and while this two month update may be a few days late, it is only because we’ve been working hard to open Wayside Theatre’s season opening production of Shenandoah. That happened Sunday night (the opening was a great success.) During the month since my last update there have been a few new apps and updates that have made the iPad a more worthy tool in my work-flow. What’s that you say? Work-flow? Isn’t it just a consumption device? Well, yes, but increasingly no. Thanks to a few app developers the iPad has found its way into my work day. Here’s how.

First, unless you’re really new to the pages of GBM, you know that I spend a lot of time taking notes as a part of my job as a theatre director. Some of these notes are taken in meetings, but most are taken in rehearsals. This is why I got into Tablet PCs to begin with. And, like many Tableteers I have been dismayed and saddened to see the move away from Digital Inking on Tablets in favor of touch. That’s a well worn story and we’ve all heard it too many times.

That said, taking notes is a very personal thing and how we do it depends a lot on the job at hand. In my case, sitting in rehearsal, taking notes means scribbling a quick note to share with an actor or staff member about a moment that is racing by live on stage. Preferably without taking my eye off of what is happening on the stage. Tablet PCs did and still do work very, very well for this kind of fast paced note taking. Many of those notes end up as chicken scratch, only decipherable to me. Over the years, I developed a system of printing the script into OneNote and taking notes on the script when the pace wasn’t so demanding. This helped me jog my memory about what I was remarking on. The bottom line for me, is that I need a quick method of scribbling something fast when it comes to the vast majority of my note taking chores. I emphasize this because it is important in context.

Penultimate

Several weeks back, before we got into the phase of rehearsals where I was taking notes furiously, the iPad app Penultimate was released. This had some promise for digital note takers (and those who like to sketch) because it offered what the developers call wrist protection, and what Tableteers call palm rejection. In other words you can lay your hand on the screen and take notes with a stylus without having stray ink scatter all over the capacitive screen. There are fundamental differences obviously from how this works with what we know and love as Tablet PCs. But, in short, after putting Penultimate to the test in a fast paced rehearsal environment, I came away impressed. It is not what I’m used to. The notes, even with my chicken scrawl are not as pretty, nor am I able to keep my eye completely on the stage. But in the end, I was able to communicate my notes to actors and staff after scribbling furiously on the iPad as rehearsals for Shenandoah flew by.

Does it replace a Tablet PC in my situation? That’s a close call and the answer is no. I can’t obviously do as much with notes scribbled into Penultimate as I can using OneNote on a Tablet PC. There’s no search. I can’t lay the script in to take notes on. I can’t Ink a quick email in rehearsal. The Inking is not as smooth. But, when push comes to shove, I can sit for a full day of rehearsal and take notes with a stylus on the iPad. So, why is it a close call? Although I had to change how I had been taking rehearsal notes a bit, I was able to do so. I miss my system, but during the next show, which starts rehearsal in a few weeks, we’ll see if that lasts or not.

The Dreaded Stylus

Speaking of s stylus. I tried using the Dagi Stylus, the Pogo Sketch, and a new stylus from Milano, that they call the mi-stylus. I ordered the mi-stylus just before rehearsals began. Although it isn’t perfect it became my stylus of choice during this period. All of these styli have to be engineered to work with the capacitive screen, and what attracted me to the mi-stylus was that its business end comes to an angled point of sorts. Don’t let this confuse you, it doesn’t give you more accuracy in writing or sketching, and you still need to use the broader part of the tip to lay down Ink. But for $4.99 it worked well enough to do the chores I needed it to. Some like the Pogo Sketch, but the mi-stylus is my choice for the iPad at the moment.

Files and Documents: Dropbox and Documents to Go

Going into this rehearsal period I anticipated not having much success because of the iPad’s lack of a file system. We send a lot of notes, schedules, diagrams, and documents back and forth during a typical three week rehearsal period. Most of these are Word docs or Excel spreadsheets and come as email attachments. While I had been using GoodReader and Air Sharing to transfer files back and forth, the release of the Dropbox App for the iPad during the rehearsal process changed everything. Dropbox is a cloud syncing solution that allows you to access your files on any device, as long as you save them into your Dropbox folder. What the iPad version does is make the lack of an OS file system almost disappear. Documents in your Dropbox folder can be opened within Dropbox for viewing. They can be saved to local storage as a favorite. While you can’t edit a document in Dropbox it allows you to save the document to be opened in another application. For most of the rehearsal process I was using the Pages app to edit these documents stored in Dropbox. But just last week, in the final days of rehearsal, the folks at DataViz released the iPad version of Documents to Go. Documents to Go gives you mobile versions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint and I had used that quite extensively on the iPhone. The iPad version lets you access your Dropbox as the repository for these files. That’s thanks to the folks at Dropbox making their APIs available. One drawback, Documents to Go can’t read Office 2010 files yet, so you need to save files created in Office apps in earlier formats.

In my use case, both of these Apps and Penultimate bring the iPad closer to being the only tool I need during a rehearsal process for working with documents. But there are other chores that I still wish I could do with a stylus.

Quick Lists and Mind Mapping

One of the tasks that I do as I’m working on a show is mind mapping. I frequently sketch out ideas in a free form fashion and then organize them later. There is an excellent mind mapping tool for the iPad called iThoughtsHD that allows you to create mind maps, but obviously you can’t do so with Digital Ink. I used iThoughtsHD several times during the process and it works well for what it does, but it can’t replace MindManger on a Tablet PC just yet for that kind of work. There is something about mind mapping in digital ink that encourages the mind mapping process. At least for me.

I am frequently making and adding and changing lists during a rehearsal process. Those lists include what the order of work will be the next day, or what props we might need for the next rehearsal, or any number of things that need to get done. Scribbling out these lists in Digital Ink became something that I just did as second nature. When I needed to send these lists to others, I would convert from Ink to text and send them on. Apple included its rudimentary Notes app with the OS, but I have been using an App called SimpleNote to make these kind of lists for distribution. It is as the name implies, a simple note taking app. No frills. You can email an note to a contact once it is created. You can sync them to a computer via a desktop app if you like, but I didn’t use this feature. Simple and effective, but again, no Digital Inking. Could I have used Penultimate to do this kind of thing? Yes, but I don’t usually subject my team members to the horrors of trying to read my Inked notes.

Other iPad Uses

This particular show, Shenandoah, is a large musical with many different scenic locations, requiring a lot of set shifts. Our small professional theatre doesn’t have the benefit of a fly system or wing space, so for a show like this we start by creating an environment wherein everything we are going to use either lives on stage, or is brought on from backstage during the course of the action. This requires a lot of pre-planning and discussions between the director and set designer and other team members. An app I used to work through different scenic set ups is called Ideate. Created for designers to sketch, it allows me to bring in a copy of our ground plan for the set, and sketch different options on top of that plan. I am just really beginning to tap the potential of this app, but I think it will become a fixture in my toolbox down the road as I use it more.

A surprising use case cropped up late in rehearsals. The opening number for Shenandoah is a big production number called Raise the Flag, in which the story of the American Civil War gets set up. The number contains Confederates and Union soldiers singing back and forth in taunting fashion over who is going to win. Our version of this, essentially seeks to tell the story of that tragic conflict in music, movement, and action. To do so it required our lighting designer to create a large number of light cues as the action swings back and forth. These shifts evolve into quicker and quicker rhythms during the number and timing is the key to making them work. I hate to waste actors time on stage while we fine tune this kind of timing. It is more than counter productive, so we typically give it our best shot with some sort of audio recording and then fine tune from there. I had heard that the iPad’s microphone and recording capabilities were surprisingly good, so I downloaded the Voice Memos app, and recorded the opening number in rehearsal. (A recording app was included with the iPhone but not the iPad.) The recording and playback quality was so good and loud enough, that the lighting designer could sit in the light booth at the back of our balcony, and I could play back the song on the main floor and he could pick it up well enough via the house monitors to execute the cue timings. This saved us a lot of time, or I should say saved the actors lots of time.

Speaking of music and sound, using Dropbox, the iPad also works well for sound files to be shared and tested out among staff members.

Connectivity and Battery Life

As I have the WiFi version of the iPad, I rely on WiFi, or the Sprint MiFi card for connectivity. Rarely in rehearsal do I need to be connected, and frequently, even on later model Tablet PCs, I will turn off all the radios to save battery life. While in the past, the MiFi card would not draw a sufficient signal to use in our theatre, that seems to have changed of late. The few times I did need to connect, I was able to pull down a signal and connect via that device. Our Stage Manager, purchased the 3G version of the iPad and she seemed to also be able to get a sufficient signal throughout a rehearsal. The good news here (except for the MiFi card’s around 4 hour battery life) is that both of us could go an entire 8 hour rehearsal and not be concerned about battery life. No more turning off radios.

Summing it Up

To reiterate, my Tablet usage in rehearsals is a very specific set of processes that have evolved over the years, and probably don’t relate to your usage very much, if at all. That said, with a few key exceptions the iPad could conceivably replace all I do with a Tablet in rehearsal. Those key exceptions (mind mapping, quick list making using handwriting recognition, note taking directly on a script) won’t keep me from trying to use the iPad in our next show as my primary rehearsal tool. As I said in one of the posts I wrote about the iPad upon its release a little over two months ago, we won’t really know what we have until the developers start really creating apps that use the device. We’re just starting to see that happen now, two months in. I’m watching with a keen eye to see what others come up with, and what the developers of Penultimate and other note taking apps may or may not do down the road. Already the iPad is proving in my case that it can be considered a work tool as well as a consumption device.
Other Posts in This Series

Warner Crocker is a professional theatre director, producer and playwright and also a Tablet PC enthusiast. He is also a Microsoft MVP for Tablet PCs. Send email to Warner. You can follow him on Twitter or Google+

15 Comments

  1. JoeC

    06/08/2010 at 4:24 pm

    Warner – Great post. I’ve been using the Radtech Styloid stylus with Penultimate and like it better than the Pogo Sketch due to the firmer tip.

    I’m having a great time with the iPad but there are times when I feel let down that the promise of early tablets (like my HP TC1100 and Toshiba M200) with *real* inking (with handwriting recognition) never evolved far enough.

    When they get a OneNote like app on the iPad and real inking I’ll forget those early WinXP inking days.

    • Warner Crocker

      06/08/2010 at 5:01 pm

      Thanks JoeC. I’ll have to check out the Radtech Styloid.

  2. TabletTeacher

    06/08/2010 at 5:10 pm

    This is encouraging.

    I want to take notes, etc. too. There is a PDF annotator in App Store, so maybe you could use that to take notes on a script?

    The problem we’re running into is no Java. Our new Student Mgmt. System is called Infinite Campus and runs Java. So, once we can work around that with an app, or go Remote Desktop Client, things will be a “Go” in our school.

    • Bass_rock

      02/07/2011 at 5:29 am

      Hi i have just finished developing an app to access the parent grade viewer for infinite campus in my district. It should work all districts that use infinite campus. Would you be interested in testing it in your district?

      • Coleslaw14

        04/08/2011 at 4:45 am

        I’m a teacher that uses Infinite Campus as well and am very interested in finding an app to access the gradebook option of IC on my iPad. Any suggestions? I’ve tried Cloud Brouse, but haven’t been impressed with the app :(

        • Bass_rock

          04/08/2011 at 4:59 am

          Not particularly. I have created a grade viewer for students and parents, but since I cant receive access for a teacher account I can not create an app for it. You can see what i have done at http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/san-jose-piv/id418834766?mt=8 I have a universal version ready but I do not want to release it unless I have tested it with multiple districts, due to different IC versions, Semester systems…. I would be willing to send you a testing version of my app. If you also would like to login into the version I have on the appstore just email the support email and I can send you a username and password to try it with.

  3. HG

    06/08/2010 at 8:59 pm

    Warner, this is a great post on using a iPad. I also use my iPad daily for my job and use Penultimate app the most. I do use iAnnotate for PDF files and works great to mark up on the road.

  4. Brett Gilbertson

    06/09/2010 at 5:51 am

    Interesting update Warner… Though this seems like such a hack. It’s a shame that Apple don’t take writing seriously – surely is is one of the most widespread tasks in the world. Until they do, I can’t take the iPad seriously. I just need inking that isn’t a workaround!

    Apart from reading my kindle books (which I really like it for) my iPad is now exiled to a coffee table / loungeroom computer. I’ve barely touched it in a couple of weeks and my productivity has gone through the roof because of it.

    I’m onto a Motion F5 with i7 processor (roughly 15 times more powerful than iPad in my estimates) with office 2010. I live in onenote and outlook and I’m getting things done! I’ve got much better battery life for twice the processing power now… and I can ink to my hearts content. I just wish they were affordable for consumers.

    Looking forward to the end of the year when we will see some affordable tablets emerge for us inkers!

    • Warner Crocker

      06/09/2010 at 6:23 am

      I guess it does qualify as a hack, although there were times where it didn’t feel like it. I sure hope you are right Brett about the next wave of Tablets, but as I’ve said many times before I have my doubts that 2010 will be the year.

      • Brett Gilbertson

        06/11/2010 at 3:21 am

        I have doubts too about whether consumers (and retailers) will take to them in iPad sized numbers, but I’ll still be happy to get a hold of them!

  5. orAndrew

    06/09/2010 at 6:06 am

    Great post.

    I’ve been thinking more and more as I get to know my new iPad that Apple always have intended to move files to the cloud and have you access them directly. It could be some of the reasoning behind the rumours that MobileMe will be given away in free in the near future – if so a quick update to iWork for iPad to use idisk will remove a lot of the problems we face managing documents today. And one of the reasons those apps are not as interesting to me as they could be.

    I too use Docs To Go, along with Office2. Both work superbly with DropBox and other services and this is crucial to me as I really want to integrate my iPad in to my daily work. When iThoughts HD updates to include DropBox (already available in a beta version I understand but no news on a full release) then another of my requirements will be met.

    Add to that an interactive (ie touch compatible) project planner then I am away!

    Oh, and the battery life is amazing. It is the first device I can truly lose all day and not find the need to constantly check the battery. Take today – I’ve used the iPad on wifi quite a lot today over the last 6 hours and the battery has gone from 94% to 81%. Very impressive.

  6. TabletTeacher

    06/09/2010 at 6:47 am

    Has anyone found a workaround for Java yet? Like I said in an earlier post, our new mgmt. system is web-based and runs runs Java.

  7. Westie

    06/09/2010 at 10:06 am

    Try FastFinga for note taking. When set to automatically enter your writing it is a superb note taking application. I use it for all notes, then email myself the note, copy it into OneNote and then use Mobile Noter on my iPad to load the notes onto my iPad. Works perfectly in my hypnotherapy practice.

  8. Mike

    06/09/2010 at 11:49 pm

    You seem to have done well with it.
    It is unfortunate, that per Steve Jobs, you fail – as you utilized a stylus.

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