Wacom's new Bamboo Spark is great fun to play with. It's a new take on graphics tablet technology where your pen and paper notes and sketches are converted straight to a digital image on your device. As Gizmodo's resident cosplayer I went hands-on with the Spark, using it to design one of my planned costumes for next year.
The hardware is beautiful. At first I was unsure whether the Spark was actually a device in its own right or just an accessory, looking a little bit like a cross between a portfolio and a tablet case. Inside there's a small notepad on one side, with a tablet sleeve or gadget pocket on the other. The interface is simple -- an on/off switch on the bottom of the folio, a sync button and two LEDs. In order to start you have to sync the Spark to a device, which I tried with both a smartphone and an iPad. From there, you just draw on the page and the Spark captures your strokes. You can even replace the Spark's default notepad with paper of your choice.
Drawing on paper has its ups and downs. Anyone who's played with a regular graphics tablet before will know that it feels nothing like drawing on paper, and sketching with the Spark was a lot easier for me to get my ideas down as I wanted. The downside of the Spark's solution to this is that lighter pen-strokes don't get captured. While sketching out some of my designs on the Spark, I had to remember to trace over everything with a heavier stroke, or else I would lose parts of my design. The Spark's main strength seems to be in note-taking, especially if you like to draw diagrams to go along with them. Without handwriting to text support in the app, however, using the Spark for regular note-taking seems like a bit of a waste of time.
Once you're done with a page, you're done. It's not possible to add to a page using the Spark once you've sent it to the cloud, although you can continue to work on a drawing within the app if you have a compatible stylus or really precise fingers. There's also no way to see what the Spark is capturing in real time, so you'll only know what your page looks like once you've sent it to your device. One of my test sketches with the Spark came out with a circular blank patch that obscured part of the design, although I couldn't tell whether this was caused by a problem with the hardware or the software.
The software isn't that user-friendly. For starters, the Spark is unable to connect to two devices at the same time, meaning that I couldn't get my images on both the iPad and my phone at the same time. A sync should fix this problem, but syncing was often unreliable in importing images either to the phone app or to the Wacom Cloud browser interface. Some pages sent from the Spark even went missing completely between syncs. Overall while the Spark's cloud technology is useful, it was finicky and difficult to make work properly more often than not. The Bamboo Spark app connects to the Wacom Cloud -- but it was sometimes painful to use. It also took a lot of Googling to figure out how to get my images out of the Spark app and into a useful program on my PC.
Having the Spark around is pretty convenient. A number of times I found myself grabbing it in the middle of the night to sketch up a few ideas, pressing the button to send the image to the cloud and syncing it up to my devices in the morning. Battery life is great, meaning I could carry it around for at least a week without needing to charge it. Having the pictures synced up to my phone or available through a browser on any device is also convenient when I need to reference my notes and sketches while I'm out buying materials.
As someone who's often prototyping and conceptualising, the Spark was an awesome little gadget to have around. If I was to integrate it into my regular costume-making process I think I would have to adapt to the different workflow that it requires, as I'm currently so used to juggling piles of paper sketches. While I only tested its basic capabilities, the concept of the Spark leaves room for a number of further possibilities -- like being able to digitally resize and print copies of my sketches whilst figuring out the scale of a piece. For other creatives, designers, and anyone who is constantly making little sketches and notes, the Spark has the potential to be a useful piece of technology.