(This is an independent review. I paid for the product, I used it for years in real conditions and its creator didn't ask me to write this review.)
People often ask me advice for a good impression device so I thought I'd share my thoughts on John Riggs' Brown Hornet. I've owned it and used it for years now so I'll detail my personal opinion, how I use John's device and some ideas that I had with it. Hopefully it will help you make an informed decision.
First, let's start by looking at what John is saying about the Brown Hornet on his own website, in order:
"Please note that there is sometimes (though not usually) up to a two week wait before I can get to your order, based on my performing schedule."
When I first saw this I feared it would mean that my order would take forever to be completed and delivered. Actually, it went pretty fast. John lives in the USA and I was living in Sydney, Australia at the time. I emailed him to make sure delivery to the other side of the world was fine, he confirmed it was, I placed my order and I received it in a delay that was totally acceptable. Personally, I think it would be madness to order such professional accessories "in a rush", for a show you're doing in a couple of weeks. Any addition to your professional repertoire (whether it is a presentation, a sleight, a script or an accessory) will require some basic training and rehearsal, so I don't see John's announced "delay" as a problem.
"the most natural, practical, and innocent impression board ever designed."
That's what got me interested in the first place. I first saw John's device in the hands of my friend Sean Taylor, an Australian mentalist. It looked so innocent and normal. The reason is simple. In his own words, John is retrofitting an existing clipboard with an impression-capturing technology. It looks normal because it was originally normal.
Normal can differ from country to country, because references can be different. I've used his Brown Hornet in Australia, Europe, Canada and USA without having the accessory looking odd. So it's pretty international in its normalcy.
"You can peek the information in less than a second."
It's certainly true that it takes 0 time to access the information. How long it takes to see it will of course depend on the quantity and complexity of the information the spectator wrote/drew. If it's a simple drawing, you'll be in and out in a flash.
"Extremely durable under real performing conditions."
Because John based his board on a real wooden clipboard, it will indeed be very durable. I received mine in a protective sleeve to prevent basic scratches and hits. I traveled with it many times, it's been carried around, squeezed in bags, handled normally and it still works perfectly. There are no moving parts to speak of so the risk of breaking it is non-existant if you follow John's handling instructions.
I should also point out that this is supposed to be a real clipboard so it doesn't have to look pristine all the time. Wood ages with time so nobody will suspect your special device because of a few scratches, if there were any.
"6 x 9in"
That's 152,4 x 228,6mm if you don't live in the USA, Liberia or Myanmar. It's also 3,93mm thin (0.1545in). The board is thin and its thinness is proportioned to its width and length so there is nothing to suspect here.
"This is not magnetic detection film that uses a magnetic pen. You can write with anything."
That's one of the great benefits of John's system, you don't need a special pen. I use ballpoint pens. The drier, pointier and crappier the better, as the impression is at its best with a hard, pointy tip.
"covers the majority of the inner surface. Therefore, the entire surface of the board is hot."
I put an A5 sheet of paper on the board, it's perfect. Unless you're inviting the audience to mess with you, no one will draw/write right on the edge of the paper/board so you will always get a full impression.
"The Brown Hornet can be used for pre-show information gathering or for real time, during the show. During showtime, you have quite a bit more control over the audience volunteers and don’t have to worry about someone trying to peel away the front of the board."
I have never used the Brown Hornet for preshow. Not because it wouldn't work, but because I never did preshows. If I did, I would use the Brown Hornet without problems.
I should mention that John also has a locking version, called the Cicada. It's a twin of the Brown Hornet: same price, same look, same impression system. However the Cicada is completely locked; even the most scrupulous spectator won't be able to open it. You will be able to open it under 15 seconds. Because of its locking nature, it's more suited for preshow work. I understand the need for the Cicada in certain environments but I would still completely trust the Brown Hornet in a preshow scenario.
I have been using the Brown Hornet for my wine tasting routine (described in my lecture notes and my Penguin LIVE lecture) for more than 10 years. People write a thought-of wine (plus the domain and the year if they want) and I perform a taste psychometry routine with their thoughts. For me, that means that I sometimes have to read a lot of things on one board. For example, a spectator could write: "Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc 2011". Since I performed this routine worldwide, I always get something new, not always in my language, and handwritings can vary wildly. However the Brown Hornet allowed me to always see and understand what was going on.
I read the device in front of everyone, on my way to drop the boards back in the suitcase locating on the side of my performing area. I also have several built-in moments justifying me returning to the suitcase to take something, therefore giving me at least 3 opportunities to get a second look.
"Several peeks are described in the comprehensive manuscript included, plus many more handlings are included on The Brown Hornet Tutorial DVD."
The DVD is one hour and a half. John described the genesis of his creation, how it works, how to use it properly, along with helpful variations and peek techniques.
In the end, I would totally recommend John Riggs' Brown Hornet if you're looking for an affordable, durable, effective and deceptive solution for preshow and reading impressions live. You can find it here.
I also bought a couple of normal clipboards from him, they match the Brown Hornet perfectly and they only cost about a tenth of the price. You can find them here.
In addition to using it for my wine tasting routine, his prop got me thinking and I found a couple of ideas for unusual uses of his impression device that I would like to share with you here. I will not discuss the specifities of John's system and actually these ideas could probably be used with any similar impression device.
Imagine a paper on which is printed a Top 10 of music artists. You give the list to someone and ask him to decide on a Top 3 by writing 1, 2 and 3 in front of his choices. He might end up with something like this:
He keeps the list and you get the clipboard back. You can now reveal his Top 3.
In order to this, you just need a small preparation. Print the list twice. Put the first copy of the list on your board and write the artists' names on top of each printed name. This will create a duplication of your writing inside the board.
Now remove the copy of the list (you can keep it as a template for repeat performances) and replace it with the second one. Now give it to someone for them to rank their Top 3. When you get the board back without the paper, you just to open it and you will see the names you wrote, with the spectator's ranks on the side.
The general idea behind this is to pre-duplicate some information then let the spectator fill in his part. Your preparation can be a list, or a vaudou silhouette on which the spectator will point areas, or a month calendar on which he will choose a day and write an activity, etc.
This idea is derived from the previous one.
You give a clipboard to someone. On it, he has to tick a box corresponding to his preferred food in a list of 7. When he is done, he removes his paper from the clipboard and passes it on to another person. That person is invited to pick a random time to eat this food by drawing a clock on his paper. When he is done, he removes his paper from the clipboard and you get the clipboard back. You can now reveal the food and the time.
The solution is in the title, "overlap". Not all information is written/drawn in the same zone.
On the same paper, print a list of 7 foods and a clock face. Also print just the list on a second paper and just the clock face on a third paper. Put the first paper on the clipboard and duplicate the boxes to tick, maybe along the initial of the listed foods. Then duplicate the clock face.
Remove that first paper (you can keep it as a template for repeat performances). Put the clock face paper on the clipboard, then the list paper on top of it.
Give everything to the first spectator. He ticks a box to select his preferred food then he keeps his paper.
The second spectator takes the clipboard and draws a time on the clock face then keeps his paper.
When you open the board to access the information, the ticked box and the clock face give you all you need to know.
Both these ideas allow you to collect different information with the same board, without having to reset or worry about overlapping writings. The examples are fairly simple so you could probably do without the pre-duplication, but for more intricate choices it will help you define specific areas on the board.