Digital Reading Room: Back to school

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[As tablets get more powerful, with more memory and sharper-looking screens, their apps are getting a makeover. Increasingly, mobile apps employ multimedia—combining words, pictures, audio, and video—in new and interesting ways. In our Digital Reading Room series, we’ll look at some eye-catching multimedia apps and tell you which ones deserve a place on your mobile device.]

Kids are heading back to school in some parts of the country, with more classrooms set to open for business in the coming weeks. So our biweekly search for new and noteworthy ebooks, reference materials, and other apps that blend compelling reads, integrated multimedia, and great design takes on a back-to-school feel. We’ll look at apps that help kids learn about the world around them, the planets above them, and blow off steam once the school day is done. We’ve even thrown in an app aimed at people who are still interested in learning even after graduation day.

Barefoot World Atlas

The appeal of Barefoot World Atlas comes with the fascinating, eclectic selection of features it displays, including the Rubik’s Cube, discovered by flying over Albania to nearby Hungary, where the toy was invented.

In the sixth grade, my class was assigned a big project—we each had to create our own world atlas. Mine ran to more than 60 pages (real paper, back then); I was proud of the accomplishment and loved learning about all of the countries that had been nothing more than strange names until then.

Times have changed, but children are as curious as ever—and Barefoot World Atlas is a gem of an app created by Touch Press, which specializes in well-designed, content-rich apps. (Its other offerings include The Elements: A Visual Exploration and The Sonnets by William Shakespeare.) Barefoot World Atlas opens with a cartoonish globe, overlaid with drawings of animals, buildings, and other landmarks and natural wonders. You can spin the globe and just tap on a country or a drawing to get more information (data like current temperature and distance from your location is supplied in real-time by Wolfram Alpha). Although the written information is sparse, it’s well-done, often including a juicy tidbit that is likely to entice kids to explore further on their own. One example: the short paragraph on giraffes included the nugget that the animal’s tongue is 1.5 feet long and purple.

While you can explore the by just spinning and tapping wherever you fancy, you can also search by country or landmark, and create a list of items that you may want to return to. This one’s a gem. It’s a universal app, recently updated to run on the iPhone and iPod touch, but the smaller screen size on those devices doesn’t really do the app justice. This is a book built for the iPad.

Where to Get It: $5; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

Solar Walk

Solar Walk provides extraordinary interactive views of planets, moons, and other objects in our solar system. In this view of Saturn’s internal structure, it also includes lots of straightforward text and graphical information.

Macworld’s review of Solar Walk from a few years back found the star-gazing app to be “tremendously impressive.” It remains so, especially if news of the Curiosity Rover has you looking to the heavens. Vito Technology’s app lets you navigate through our solar system in four dimensions (if you include time), view 97 planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, comets, satellites, moons, and the sun from any distance. You can rotate and zoom in on each object, view the moons of planets such as Saturn from all angles, and even rotate the entire solar system. Each celestial object is accompanied by basic information about its shape, size, and composition; a cutout view details what’s known about each planet’s internal layers.

Solar Walk is simply stunning, and has been updated to take advantage of the new iPad’s retina display; the app allows you to get even more immersive if you can hook your iPad up to a 3D TV. It’s also great fun, and includes still photos, information about missions to the planets and other objects, eight brief movies, and the ability to take save images to your camera role and share them via email, Twitter, and Facebook.

Where to Get It: $1; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

Spider-Man AR Book HD

Spider-Man AR Book HD includes sound effects, a few games and some opportunities to take photos of yourself wearing Peter Parker’s glasses and Spider Man’s mask. It can also be read (and heard out loud) in 11 languages.

It’s unclear why Marvel decided to plug augmented reality into this picture book with games and a few other interactive elements, but the good news is that if you have a young reader who likes Marvel’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger, this is a nice offering that will probably occupy them for an hour or so. The book is beautifully laid out, with each page containing an excellent photo (which zooms in or out) and elegant-looking text.

Options include the ability to have the book read out loud in English and 10 other languages (the text also changes to the other languages, as well), turn on sound effects, access a few tap-tap games, and take photos of yourself wearing a Spider Man mask or transforming into Spider Man. (You can save those photos or email them when you’re done.)

Considering the price of a paper version of a comic or photo book and the extra elements included with this app, Spider-Man AR Book HD is a decent deal. However, if you’re looking for something that your child will play over and over again, you may want to look elsewhere.

Where to Get It: $5; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Maybe worth a look.

TED Books

As in his 2010 TED Talk, The Happy Planet Index, Nic Marks references Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in his TED Book, The Happiness Manifesto. One advantage of the book version is that you can pause your reading to view a portion of the speech.

TED conferences began in 1984, as meetings of the world’s best and brightest—a multiday affair that combined brief, captivating presentations with lots of networking among the elite, invitation-only crowd. While TED conferences—that’s TED, as in Technology, Education, Design—have multiplied, the decision to post videos of the talks on the Web has made them ubiquitous, spawning close examination in The New Yorker and plenty of backlash, even from former admirers.

TED Books are the latest offering from the organization. The books, which expand on the conference’s 18-minute presentations, are designed for those who want to know more about a topic, but don’t want to read a full-length book on it. The books do augment the talks in significant ways, adding more textual information, illustrations, short biographies, videos, and links relating to the topic. The videos and links require an Internet connection, but a video of the original talk at the book’s conclusion is embedded, so you can watch it on your mobile device without a Web connection. The app is well-designed, with books arranged on a virtual bookshelf, and the books themselves are clearly conceived to be much more than a regurgitation, in text form, of the original presentation.

TED Books are also available as iBooks, and in Kindle and Nook formats for the same $3 per title price as you pay from within the TED Books app. But the iBook version of Cheating The Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist, by Philippe Petit, lacked all of the links, video, and other interactive elements of the book purchased within the TED Books app. The iBooks version also refers to videos without acknowledging where they can be found, so iPad owners will be better off sticking with the TED Books option.

You can buy a three-month subscription to Ted Books for $15; the pitch is that you get six books (one every two weeks) for the price of five, but apparently you don’t have a choice of which book(s) you want. A la carte seems the way to go. If you generally enjoy Ted Talks, this app is the way to go, too.

Where to Get It: Free (book downloads cost $3); iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

This story, "Digital Reading Room: Back to school" was originally published by TechHive.

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