Digital Reading Room: The next big thing

[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.]

Is bigger better? Sometimes, when we’re talking about an app that provides an in-depth exploration of Romeo & Juliet. Dinosaurs? Well, most were big, and they had a good run of things for a long time, but they obviously had their weaknesses—as does a children’s app about the prehistoric creatures. And an app about Big Data impresses—when it doesn’t feel like an ad campaign put together by the app’s corporate sponsors.

Romeo and Juliet: Explore Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet: Explore Shakespeare provides, as its Cambridge University Press provenance suggests, an academically-oriented exploration of Shakespeare. It’s divided into three sections—Experience, Explore, and Examine. From within each section, you can decide the types and levels of explanation you want. The end result allows teachers to tailor the app experience to a wide range of high school and college students.

One of the less flashy but most useful features of Romeo and Juliet: Explore Shakespeare is its pop-up glossary, which helps readers understand many Old English words and phrases which have changed in meaning since Shakespeare’s time.

The Experience section is the most eye-catching portion of the app. It includes a full audio production starring Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Fiona Shaw. You can follow along as the text script automatically scrolls in sync with the audio; many portions of the text that use either antiquated or obscure terms and phrases are lightly underscored, and when you tap on them, modern definitions pop up. This feature, which can easily get lost in describing the many facets of this app, may be the most worthwhile of all, especially for those new to Shakespeare.

Some other noteworthy features of the app include plot synopses in varying levels of detail, a slew of exercises that would be helpful for anyone trying to teach the classic, and a collection of compelling short essays in the “Examine” section that make the play easier to understand from an assortment of angles.

These elements, and many more, combine to make Romeo and Juliet: Explore Shakespeare an app that serves as an excellent introduction to the play, while simultaneously providing more advanced scholars an in-depth, thought-provoking experience.

Where to Get It: $14; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

Scholastic First Discovery: Dinosaurs

Scholastic First Discovery: Dinosaurs is aimed at the 4- to 7-year-old set. It provides solid introductory audio and visual information about a dozen or so dinosaurs, as well as some sea creatures that lived billions of years ago. The app is designed in the form of a flip book, one with interactive pages. There are brief lessons on herbivorous versus carnivorous species, theories on why the dinosaurs went extinct, and how fossils have helped us understand how dinosaurs lived and what they probably looked like.

Tap on an egg, and out pops a dinosaur! This is one of the many very simple interactive activities included Scholastic First Discovery: Dinosaurs.

The interactive pages are a bit simple even for young children. On one page, tapping on eggs hatches different dinosaurs; on another, rubbing the skeletons of dinosaurs fleshes them out. One notable exception is a page in which you puzzle dinosaur bones together; the panel scrolled and zoomed in and out quickly and somewhat unpredictably. Sometimes moving a bone would produce scrolling or zooming.

It’s unfortunate that apps can’t be shared or given away, as books can, because while Scholastic First Discovery: Dinosaurs is informative and fairly well done, it’s unlikely to interest a small child after a single go-through.

Where to Get It: $4; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Put the money you’d spend on buying a book instead.

The Human Face of Big Data

It’s hard to know what to make of The Human Face of Big Data. It looks—and often acts—like a giant promotion for the massive quantities of data that are continually being gathered and analyzed about us. This makes sense, as the app’s opening splash screen makes clear that it’s sponsored by EMC, Cisco, and FedEx. (What’s less clear is that it’s also sponsored by Google and Twitter, which is noted in small type at the bottom of the “credits” page at the end.)

EMC stores, collects, and analyzes data, and it’s all good–if we believe this ad (which looks like every other page in The Human Face of Big Data).

There are a few warnings about the potential hazards of big data and advanced technology. (The criminals have access to it, too, an essay on “Dark Data” emphasizes.) But the app is mostly a celebration of Big Data’s benign uses. This isn’t bad in and of itself—many of the projects highlighted are fascinating. However, pages showcasing Twitter’s role in the 2012 Greek protests, Google’s essential goodness, and EMC’s protective storage and analysis of data look the same as all the others: Giant ads indistinguishable from unpaid editorial content.

In other words, the Human Face of Big Data is a fun, informative, and slickly-produced advertorial bought to you by the Business Face of Big Data. And it’ll cost you.

Where to Get It: $3; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Pass.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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