Digital Reading Room: Past, present, and future

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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.]

Our latest look at new content-rich apps starts off in the past before taking a look at some mobile offerings that point to a bright future for how we tell stories.

Pyramids 3D

An ingenious feature of Pyramids 3D is the inclusion of renderings of how pyramids and tombs probably looked when they were new, contrasted in these side-by-side screenshots with how they look now. It’s startling, almost like time travel.

It’s tempting to devote two or three entire Digital Reading Room columns solely to the apps coming out of Touch Press. I’ve already reviewed their superb Barefoot World Atlas and am tempted to also download The Sonnets by William Shakespeare, The Waste Land, and March of the Dinosaurs.

Instead, let’s look at Pyramids 3D—simply a stunning way to explore Egypt’s Giza Plateau, home to a slew of pyramids (including The Great Pyramid and King Khafre’s Pyramid), tombs, and The Sphinx. There are many different ways to view the dozen or so large structures, and even more ways to experience the details, including some cool fast zooms into the pyramids and tombs, 360-degree views at all times, detail views, then-and-now comparisons, and access to greater detail via pop-up explanations and a short book, which is a discreet element of the app.

What most surprised me was that prior to downloading and using the app for professional purposes, I had little interest in the pyramids, tombs, and Egypt’s other ancient ruins. Pyramids 3D has turned me 180 degrees on the subject, and I’m ready for a crash course.

Where to Get It: $14; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download. Great for both kids and adults.

Silent History

The Silent History is, for the most part, a straightforward narrative with a clean, easy-to-navigate interface. Although it includes some interactive elements, it is primarily an ebook.

In a recent profile of “The Silent History” creator Russell Quinn, Wired described the app as “part book, part multiplayer game, part Google map, and entirely revolutionary.”

This is a misrepresentation of the app, in a big way. The Silent History is mostly a book that incorporates ideas that have been around since at least the 1980s, in the form of massively multiplayer online games and does use Google Maps. It’s not revolutionary, and it’s difficult to imagine that, because of constraints built into the role-playing element, more than a small fraction of the app’s users will participate in the “game” element.

Which leaves us with an ebook—an outstanding serial about a mysterious disease that users learn about in chronological fashion, with testimonial-style entries contributed by parents, children, health care providers, teachers, public servants, and others. Each has a close and unique perspective on the ailment, which renders children speechless and, in the app’s first installment (four weeks thus far, with five daily entries delivered each week) nearly catatonic.

The writing is superlative: It can’t be easy to write from the perspective of so many different characters, and each entry adds some kind of clue to the mystery in a light-handed fashion. The iPhone and iPad are well-suited to the serial fashion of delivering a long tale, popularized in the mass media by Charles Dickens, as well.

(The interactive element, which allows app users to submit their own “field reports,” seems dubious, at best, as it requires other app users to literally go to the exact spot of the field report (that’s where Google Maps comes in) in order to read it. This may work well in big cities, but thus far, the closest testimonials to where I live are hundreds of miles away, and at best they are interesting but unessential to the story.)

In other words, the app is experimenting with evolutionary methods of storytelling, and may, in the future, be remembered for this. More likely, it will be recalled as an outstanding story well and simply told, which is meant to be high praise.

Where to Get It: Free to download ($2 per volume; $9 for all six volumes); iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

The Magazine

The Magazine’s reverse-chronological table of contents, combined with its clean look and excellent writing, make it a likely winner in the competitive Newsstand portion of the iOS app store.

A disclaimer upfront: A few TechHive editors have contributed to The Magazine, an iPhone and iPad app from Instapaper creator Marco Arment. Even if they hadn’t, though, you should still pay attention to this appealing publication that manages to be different while also feeling familiar.

That familiar comes from borrowing Instapaper’s uncluttered look. Articles include pop-up links (a terrific idea) but no images, and the formatting for each article is clean—and identical—by design. The Magazine is also delivered in an Instapaper-like fashion; instead of issues being discrete entities, the table of contents lists articles from all issues, in reverse chronological order. Because there have been only two issues and 11 articles thus far, it’s unclear how this will be handled in the future, but it works for now.

In his introduction, Arment says he’ll publish four articles every two weeks, a modest goal in terms of quantity but one that fits with the aim of focusing on quality writing. While each article is clearly informed by a writer who loves technology—the magazine is billed at “geeks like us”—the human element prevails in terms of both subject matter and tone. Hence The Magazine has already delivered pieces on subjects ranging from wet shaving to sports to a couple’s experience with in vitro fertilization.

The Magazine is a bargain, in large part because it’s a monthly charge, not a per issue one. That means, at the end of the year, you’ll receive around 100 articles for just $24.

Where to Get It: Free; $2 per month; iOS App Store

The Verdict: For moderate-to-extreme techies, it’s a definite buy.

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