Digital Reading Room: Out of this world

[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.]

Our regular look at content-rich apps for your tablet takes you around the world, into outer space, and through the annals of rock history. But let’s start things off with an eye-catching digital novel set in the distant future.

Bottom of the Ninth 01

Bottom of the Ninth comes to life when you tap on the arrow icons, which animate a panel, and the microphone icon, which adds audio commentary. When you tap the dialogue bubbles, sometimes you’ll hear the words that are on the screen; often you’ll hear a whole lot more.

I’m already looking forward to the part 2 of Bottom of the Ninth, a serial graphic novel that combines traditional still panels with animation, terrific voice acting and sound effects. But most important is the narrative, a compelling story about Candy Cunningham, an 18-year-old pitcher for the Tao City Pilots. Although the story is set in the year 2172, a female major league pitcher is still novelty enough to incite extreme skepticism among announcers, fans and teammates. I won’t give away the ending to the first installment of this e-novel, except to say that it seemed pitch-perfect—I want to find out what happens next, and I’m willing to pay for it.

Ryan Woodward, an associate professor at BYU’s College of Fine Arts and Communications, created Bottom of the Ninth, and his professorial bent is evident at the website he created for the app. It includes great information about how his ideas have evolved as technology has changed, some sample animations and screenshots, and also about “the story behind the story.”

Where to Get It: $4; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

1,000 Places To See Before You Die

Two of the many disappointing aspects of 1,000 Places To See Before You Die are evident here: the paucity of user-contributed content (eight images of Hong Kong; many popular destinations have few or no photos). This is likely the result of poor functionality, as the only way to contribute images is directly from your iPad’s camera roll—you can not access images you’ve posted on Flickr or other photo sharing sites.

I’ve been a big fan of Lonely Planet’s travel guides for a long time—they provide subjective but reliable information, and often point to the “off the beaten path” places that really deserve the moniker. In other words, they deliver quirky quality. Perhaps that is one reason why I find 1,000 Places To See Before You Die so disappointing. Based on the book of the same title, the app provides good, if brief, original text on each place, along with some relevant Web links.

But once you get past the startup screen and are asked to register or log in, you may be confused. Register for what, exactly? No information is provided. I took a chance, and realized that this enables you to check off places you’ve been, provide “tips” for other users, and upload your own photos of places and landmark—as long as those photos are already on your iPad.

That explains why many landmarks have few or no user-contributed photos, or way too many personal snapshots of the “here we are at the Eiffel Tower” variety. It doesn’t explain, though, why the few “tips” from other users ran from the useless (“What a cool place!”) to the inane (“Paris is a big city. Use the metro if you want to see a lot of places quickly. But to enjoy the quiet beauty of the streets, walk.”)

There is no function that allows users to rate comments or photos, and there is no system for giving users credit for worthwhile contributions. Without such basic capabilities, the overall quality of images and comments is likely to remain poor even if their volume increases over time. The text, the stunning original images included with the app, and the ability to keep track of where you’ve been and where you want to go are not bad. But the app’s social aspects are poor, at best.

Where to Get It: $4; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Pass.

Spacecraft 3D 1.5

The spacecraft Curiosity is currently exploring Mars—and my kitchen table. This image of the craft is one of dozens I took from different angles. Under Curiosity is a marker, included with the app, that you print out and align with your iPad’s camera for the app to work properly.

For those of us with long memories, one of the great thrills of early space exploration was being able to see astronauts touching down on the moon, taking spacewalks, and generally experiencing space first hand. The personal feel has faded now that robots have pretty much replaced astronauts, but NASA is doing its best to recapture the public’s imagination about its space missions. Spacecraft 3D, an augmented reality app, helps by enabling users to view six spacecraft close-up, from just about any angle. Three of them—Curiosity (Mars), Grail (the Moon), and Cassini (Jupiter)—are currently on solid ground. Voyager, Dawn, and Juno are on the move.

Spacecraft 3D requires an iOS device—the iPad’s big screen provides the best experience—with a camera and a printed target placed on a flat surface to work. After you’ve properly aligned your iOS device with the target, the spacecraft appears on your screen. You can then move around the spacecraft to view it from any angle, zoom in close up on particular parts of the craft, and—in the case of Curiosity—watch as the craft’s arm, mast, and high-gain antenna are deployed. You can also take screenshots using a single tap camera button on the app.

It would be nice to get more information on the crafts’ different parts, either by tapping on them or having that data appear automatically when you zoom in on a specific area. But NASA plans to continue adding more craft to the app, and the desire for additional features takes nothing away from this extraordinary display of the possibilities inherent when programmers make skillful use of the iPad’s camera and display capabilities.

Where to Get It: free; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

History of Rock

Two timelines—the bottom chock-full of strictly chronological details, the top leading users through more general information (including videos) about the movers, shakers, and trends in rock history—help make History of Rock a pleasure to browse.

Deciding to entitle your book (or app, or movie) the “History of [Big Topic]” may be good marketing, but it’s also a big claim that few can deliver on. That said, Mark Paytress, a veteran rock journalist who’s written the text for History of Rock (it’s also available as a book) has done a remarkable job. This beautifully-designed app combines his words with superb photos, YouTube videos, multiple timelines, and 30-second iTunes song samples (with links to buy the tracks from the built-in iTunes app). In the process, History of Rock comes pretty close to delivering on its promise. There are individual articles on major artists, producers, genres and sub-genres, and industry trends (such as the rise of digital downloads)

The app has two downsides, which are relatively minor considering its merits. The first is perhaps unavoidable—a fair number of YouTube videos—almost all of artists performing single songs—have been taken down, often due to copyright infringement. The second is that while links enable you to buy relevant songs via iTunes, the app is unable to detect which songs already have on your iPad.

Where to Get It: $5; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download

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