Digital Reading Room: Apps that reach for the sky

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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.]

We go up into the air and out into space in this installment of the Digital Reading Room. Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, a spinoff of the physicist’s BBC mini-series, sends us spinning as far as 13 billion light years away. Closer to earth—but perhaps more scary—we take wing in World War II aircraft with the Flygirls, a group of brave female pilots who were crucial to the U.S. air campaign. And finally we fly low (and slow) with photographer George Steinmetz in his paraglider, experiencing extraordinary natural and man-made wonders from an unusual viewpoint.

Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe

Wonders of the Universe includes many beautiful zoomable images, such as this one of asteroid fragments.

How did the universe come into being? What happened in the nanoseconds and minutes after the Big Bang? With millions of pounds of air pressure bearing down on each of us, how are we able to move? These questions—and many more that you may not have even thought to ask—are answered in Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe.

The app, adapted from the five-part BBC TV series, is divided up into short “chapters” and larger sections, much like a book. But by providing multiple navigational tools, Wonders of the Universe encourages users to hop around. The sections are arranged in a logical order (by scope, from the Universe to the Atom), which is especially useful when you begin to explore. Each chapter is a single scrollable page that includes a one- to two-minute streaming video featuring Cox, a particle physicist, explaining the topic at hand simply and often using metaphors. The video is followed by text and resizable images that provide additional detail. The images may be of galaxies 13 billion light years away (courtesy of the Hubble Telescope), our solar system’s planets, natural earthly wonders (such as the extraordinary Chaco Canyon ruins in northwestern New Mexico), or particles.

Cox’s enthusiasm comes across strongly in the videos; it’s a big reason why this app is so engaging. Wonders of the World has some shortcomings—it requires an Internet connection to view the videos, and you won’t find notetaking or bookmarking tools. The content is elegantly produced, and seems designed to be understandable and provocative for tweens, teens, and adults. Together, the visual and textual elements of Wonders of the Universe add up to a wonderful app.

Where to Get It: $6; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download.

Flygirl WWII

An overview of part of Flygirl WWII, which uses text, images, newspaper clippings, and documents (as well as audio and video) to convey the experience of the Army’s pioneering Women Aircraft Service Pilots.

Flygirl WWII portrays a little-known aspect of World War II—the role played by female military pilots. Women Aircraft Service Pilots, also known as WASPs, served as test and target pilots, and, as conveyed by former WASP Deanie Parrish, it was no cakewalk.

The story Parrish tells takes place largely in Sweetwater, Texas, a site chosen for flight training because of its sparse population. The app is part history, part autobiography, and part scrapbook. It includes text, and scores of photos, videos, newspaper clippings, and army documents to convey the experience.

The app’s materials seem to come mainly from WASP on the Web, a site created, like the app, by Nancy Parrish. Flygirls WWII has the look and feel of a well-crafted personal scrapbook—one that’s been compiled with care over many years. This means that some of the navigational elements—arrows and buttons—resemble old Geocities sites. But these are minor annoyances when considering the well-arranged treasure trove of material, which is both enlightening and entertaining.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download.

Above & Beyond: George Steinmetz

Above & Beyond enables you to bring up technical and descriptive information about each image by tapping on an icon at the bottom of the iPad screen.

Above & Beyond showcases 50 superb aerial images produced by National Geographic and Geo photographer George Steinmetz. Most of the photos feature remote, extraordinary natural landscapes; Steinmetz takes his photos from his paraglider, the world’s lightest aircraft, and as he says in tha brief video included in the app, the 360 degree view he gets when flying is crucial to his work.

The photos in Above & Beyond can be accessed either from a thumbnail grid or a map; you can also simply scroll through them. For each photo, a menu tucked into the screen’s bottom right corner provides access to a brief audio narration with Steinmetz describing the circumstances of the shoot or his personal impressions of the landmark. A pop-up text box provides technical details (camera, lens, etc.), while a “share” button enables you to email images or post them to Facebook and Twitter; a link leads to a view of the image’s location on Google Maps.

For many content-heavy iOS apps, a paucity of interactive elements is a drawback, but for Above & Beyond, it seems entirely appropriate, putting the focus on the remarkable images and allowing the viewer to become absorbed in them without distraction.

Where to Get It: $2; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download.

This story, "Digital Reading Room: Apps that reach for the sky" was originally published by TechHive.

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