Konfetti, designer Stephan Maximilian Huber’s new app, converts your camera’s mirror image into a collection of dots that follow your movements. Transform and manipulate them, creating ever more striking and abstract renderings, by touching the screen. (Via.)
— Maud Newton
Robin Sloan’s Fish app is, like it says, a tap essay about the difference between liking and loving something on the Internet — about the way most of us enjoy things only once, in a rush, online. We click the little star or heart or “like” button, maybe even update our “Read it Later” queue. Then we move on, never to return.
For me, it’s more rarely than never. I Google up old favorites; I rummage through my archives for links to and thoughts on things I read years ago; but most of my quick hits have moved to Twitter, and those are a lot harder to track down six or thirty months later. And yes: most of what I like online, I see only once.
That’s always been true for me of some other things, too. Magazine articles. Theatrical productions. Limited-run films. Even books. Plenty of books. The problem isn’t unique to the Internet, but it feels different here, more endemic to the medium. So many new things are always streaming past that we don’t often make time to visit the old ones.
Sloan advocates going back to things. Really sitting with them, getting to know them. To say much more than that might spoil the Fish for you, so I’ll just recommend downloading it and reading through, possibly more than once. There is no back button.
For a good companion app, try the beautiful and mysterious Everything Is Its Own Reward, which I, like Laura, find myself returning to often, especially at the end of a stressful day. It took me several readings to remember to look for the hidden parts.
Whatever interactive fiction is (and we’re still figuring that out) it suffers from all the problems of traditional fiction and then some. The vast majority of novels and short stories aren’t much good, but when a branching fiction — along the lines of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books — fails to engage, the first impulse is to blame the form rather than the content. Let “Frankenstein,” just released by Inkle Studios and Profile Books, serve as a reproach to that reflex. The app is a creative, subtle and sensitive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novella, and it has singlehandedly renewed this critic’s hopes for interactive fiction.
What this “Frankenstein” isn’t is a replication of the source text with the addition of a lot of digital doohickeys like sound effects and illustrations that animate when tapped. The app is all about the text, even if it is beautifully framed by period art and anatomical illustrations. The reader is presented with a screenful of narration and then offered one or more responses to it. The preferred response, when tapped, delivers up another screen of text. (In an absurdly pleasing visual touch, these appear as sheets of paper fasted together by straight pins.) According to the press materials, the reader’s responses will shape the way the narrative is presented, although not to the degree of substantively changing the plot.
This is an important point. The pleasure of storytelling lies in the dynamic between the surprising and the inevitable. The reader wants to feel the story is going somewhere, that its events follow from each other in meaningful, but not too obvious ways. When a story can go anywhere, it feels meaningless. In Mary Shelley’s novella, which is saturated with the Western tradition of the tragedy, Viktor Frankenstein’s character is such that he must create a monster, and the monster’s body is such that he can never belong among human beings however much he yearns to. A “Frankenstein” that ended with either misfit finding a comfortable place in the world would be a travesty.
But that doesn’t mean the reader doesn’t long for the story to unfold otherwise; that’s the nature of tragedy. The great insight that writer Dave Morris brings to this adaptation of the novel is that while a reader cannot significantly change the outcome of the story, the interactive element can change the shading and flavor of the tale. It can be mournful and reflective or action-packed. The creature and his creator can show greater or lesser ambivalence about their own behaviors. The ambiguity of both figures is baked into Mary Shelley’s novella, and while Morris has nearly doubled the word count of the original, this mostly amounts to playing up or down what’s already there.
Morris — a novelist who has written graphic novels, games and, yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories for kids — has changed the original text in other ways, as well. (Let’s take a moment here to point out to all future narrative app developers that hiring a real writer who actually knows what he or she is doing is totally worth it.) He’s moved the setting to revolutionary France, a choice that shows shrewd understanding of the idealistic political climate that affected Shelley’s thinking; the new Republic is its own kind of Frankenstein’s monster. He’s also eliminated much of the 19th-century framing of the tale and converted it into two present-tense narrations. One is Frankenstein’s dialogue with either himself or a (possibly imaginary) companion. The other is a second-person account of the monster’s first weeks of life as it spies on a family of dispossessed French nobility and has the chance to observe the loving relationships it can never enjoy itself.
Morris presents the reader with choices I’ve not encountered in other interactive fictions. Is humanity mostly good, or mostly evil? Does the most recent development make you (the monster) feel hope or despair? Is the revolution the dawn of a brave new world or a descent into chaos and barbarity? While I’m usually skeptical that present-tense narration increases the “immediacy” of a story, in this case, it really does work, particularly in the sections concerning the monster. Depending on your own outlook, you may urge him to keep trying to connect with humanity, or promptly forward him on to homicidal rage.
In either case, the narrative is shaped not by the reader deciding to turn left or right, to go down into the cellar or to get out of the house — the usual actions offered on the choose-your-own menu. Instead, the options have more to do with personality and interpretation, beliefs and ideas. As a result of the reader’s choices, the characters seem more like him- or herself, with a concurrent ratcheting up of emotional investment. To my surprise, I found myself more moved by this adaptation of the Shelley novel than I have been by the source text. (Although the app does include the original if you want to compare and contrast.) This is the only interactive fiction I’ve ever read with that quintessential, old-fashioned readerly avidity: the hunger to know what happens next. Of course, I already knew, but that didn’t matter at all.
When it comes to integrating images, text and video in inventive ways, some of the most promising new tablet apps have been produced by museums. It’s a logical fit: Museums are about both information and looking at things. People absorb their exhibits by wandering around, in a self-directed and often non-linear manner. And museums tend to be funded by corporations who like the idea that their investment will result in their logo being attached to prestigious content distributed all over the world, not just in the city where the museum is located. That means the apps are often free.
The new app for the Design Museum in London is, unsurprisingly, beautifully designed. It features 59 exemplary objects from the museum’s collection, everything from iconic chairs and the original, candy-colored iMac to the first plastic-covered nappy (diaper), devised by an American housewife in 1946 and celebrated in the accompanying text as an example of ingenious “design without designers.” Others are simply beautiful.
The items are presented on a grid, with each column and row scrollable either vertically or horizontally. Select an object and the entry expands to reveal a gallery of photographs from various angles, text explaining the object’s provenance and the reasons for its inclusion, and a brief video of museum director Deyan Sudjic talking about why it’s notable. Although Deyan has a pleasant voice and extemporizes comfortably, the videos are the weakest part of the app because they are superfluous. There’s nothing in them you can’t already find in the text or photographs. Occasionally, they miss an opportunity, such as not including the sound of Alberto Alessi’s famous Whistling Kettle, which was designed to sound like an American freight train, and since many of these objects are praised for their functionality, it would be nice to see some of them in action.
A curious effect of meandering through the Design Museum Collection app and other forms of non-linear media is a low-level anxiety that you might miss something. In a physical museum, you can poke your head in every room and assure yourself that you’ve covered all the exhibit territory in the building. Every so often, using the Design Museum app, I found myself scrolling an interesting object off the main page and then not being able to find it again. (The scrollable “strips” seem to change their composition when you move in and out of an entry.) Where was that weird-looking TV, again? Eventually, I found it, but this nagging sensation of incompleteness is something nonlinear-media creators need to bear in mind. The idea is to make art and information accessible to an audience in new ways, not (or at least not always) to make them wonder if it’s been withheld.
Finally, while I’m leery of the mania for injecting social media elements into every cultural experience, I love that the Design Museum app supports comments on every single entry. The objects were all designed to be used, and it’s delightful to read accounts (both laudatory and derisive) of what it’s like to live with them.
When the New York Public Library released Biblion last year, it properly wowed iPad users interested in inventive ways of presenting information. Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic proclaimed it a model for the magazine apps of the future. So far, though — nearly a year later — there hasn’t been another issue.
The theme of the premier issue is the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The library signed on to get all materials pertaining to the event right from the very beginning, so it’s a fabulous trove of documents, correspondence, blueprints, sketches, photographs, short films, even a menu or two.
The only way to read Biblion is to wander through it, an experience that more than one observer likened to meandering around the fair itself. It’s an impressive emulation, as well, of rummaging through a good archive or taking in a museum exhibit. If you care about women at the fair (scantily-clad ones were a major attraction), or the Czech Pavilion as a commemoration of a republic that fell to the Nazis while the exhibition being built, or what the staff uniforms looked like, or the story of the African-American composer who wrote the music for the Democracity exhibit inside the fair’s giant dome, you can head straight for that and then fork off in other directions later. Navigation is complex, but after a while you get the hang of it.
The material is clustered around short, well-written essays, and this, as well, seems ideally suited to the material. I wouldn’t call Biblion a model for the tablet magazines of the future, however, because it doesn’t offer one of the primary things magazine features and books provide, which is the order of linearity. Making sense of raw facts, pointing out strands of cause and effect, conveying which bits of information mean more than others: These are some of the meaning-making services that writers and editors perform. It’s a mistake — one often made by unreflective technoevangelists — to assume that linearity’s role in that service is no more than a vexing constraint imposed by the print medium.
For a subject like the 1939 World’s Fair, however, the reader’s freedom to browse through the app’s content at will is exactly the right format. Biblion is spectacularly produced with clever little animations and nice touches like a rotating set of opening images and suggestions for which topic to visit next.
It must have cost a fortune to produce, which makes me fear the library will never get around to assembling another issue. (The web version of Biblion has a collection of stuff on Percy and Mary Shelley up at the moment, but no iPad version seems pending.) I hope that’s not the case, because the access Biblion provides to the world’s great library collections is one of the most exciting possibilities of tablet computers.
Generally we try to steer clear of servicey posts, our purview being art, narrative, and fun, and preferably some combination of these. But I do use my iPad for practical things, and obviously many of you do, too. So I thought I’d share the stylus recs I solicited at Ask MeFi. I’m thinking of replacing my AluPen with Wacom’s Bamboo.
The iPad has made me more conscious of my utter lack of talent at visual art than anything that’s happened since the weekend painting class I took when I was nine. I think that’s because tablet-made art, no matter how sophisticated, still seems so novel and so accessible beneath the shiny, shiny glass, like some kind of delightful accident that could happen to anyone: I have this app, too, so why can’t I draw a cherry blossom tree like that? Obviously the same principle applies here as to actual pencil and paper. It’s not the tools, it’s the ability. And the patience.
As tools go, though, I do like Paper, a simple app which allows you to create, and to sketch and diagram in, unlimited notebooks. Everyone who’s denounced the payment set-up has a point; while the app itself is free, you have to buy the pens and brushes individually, for a total of about $8. And the Rewind feature is cumbersome and limited. I’d prefer an Undo button with endless recall. You’d understand why if you saw the “sky” I tried to draw.
I’ll always be devoted to my actual composition notebooks, but they get cluttered and filled with ephemera, and I can only keep track of one at a time. So I’ve decided to try using Paper for some of my quick notes, outlines, timelines, to-do lists, and ideas related to my various projects and interests. I like being able to sort them so cleanly.
I’ve also started a travel journal. I haven’t kept any kind of diary, unless my blog counts as one, since I was in my early twenties. Figuring out what to say, even to myself, was too stressful. Excising the stupid things I wrote in them was too complicated. Many pages got ripped out; huge paragraphs were markered over. In the end, I threw all those notebooks away.
With this app, you can erase sentences, pages, and entire notebooks with a quick touch of the screen, so I won’t have any excuse. I’ve made after-the-fact notes on my recent, fun travels and am hoping to keep it up when I’m away in May.
While we’re thinking about the heavens: I would guess just about every iPad user has at least one astronomy app. I have seven. Probably because I see actual stars so rarely here in the city, I can’t get enough.
The first I downloaded when I got my iPad, two years ago now, was Astro, which enables you to zoom in on the earth, moon, and Mars, but is maddening to navigate, as choppy as the Google Maps system that powers it. I did at least learn one thing from using this app: that I don’t have much interest in examining random lunar craters.
Star Walk, on the other hand. Ahhh, Star Walk. There are prettier sky apps for the casual astronomer now — Luminos and Go Sky Watch, and probably others I haven’t discovered — but Star Walk (below) was my entry-point.
Luminos (below) is my current favorite, although I go back and forth.
Using these apps, I can lie in bed and know exactly which constellations are above me, and which are to the north, south, east, and west. I can even view the solar system “from space” (below, in Luminos).
It’s a strange thing to do, I guess — stay indoors with traffic rushing by outside and pretend to gaze at the heavens — but no more strange than growing “forests” in glass jars, which is another thing I do to counteract the asphalt. It comforts me to know what’s happening in the natural world, even though I often feel very distanced from it.
Sometimes, standing out on my terrace with a glass of wine, I’ll see a faint row of stars and the apps can tell me whether it really is Orion’s belt.
And on the rare occasions I actually have the chance to stargaze, up at my sister’s in Western Massachusetts, for instance, or while I was in Oxford, Mississippi, last week, I can switch to night mode (below, in Sky Walk), and roam outdoors, pointing the iPad in the direction of anything I’m not able to identify by sight.
I wish I’d had these tools as a kid, on those muggy Miami nights when I’d sit out on the deck behind my house, sweating, slapping mosquitoes, and trying to make the clusters of glowing pinpricks in the sky map onto the constellations I’d seen in my encyclopedia.
In Star Walk or Luminos, if you’re searching for Aries or Andromeda or Perseus, selecting the constellation from a pop-up list shows you exactly where to to find it. If you want to know what time Saturn or Venus rises, you’re also in luck. And in Star Walk there are magnificent daily photos, like the one at the top of this post, accompanied by detailed descriptions, like the one below.
Of all the apps on my iPad, I always recommend one of these first to new users. You can supplement them with free stuff like NASA and Exoplanet. The universe for less than five bucks.
Our guest for today is Sharon Stiteler, AKA the Birdchick, birder, beekeeper and rabbit wrangler extraordinaire. She works as a ranger for the Mississippi River Visitor Center for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. — Laura
My iPad is used primarily for work and giving programs. I keep quite a few bird field guides and bird finding apps on there, so if someone asks where they can find a titmouse or how to tell a Cooper’s hawk from a sharp-shinned hawk, I can give them a fairly accurate answer. If it didn’t have so much public use, my desktop would have Peter Dinklage’s GQ Man of the Year photo on it.
Since it would be hard to explain how a park ranger accidentally showed a bunch of kids a hot dwarf with a naked woman, I have a photo I took when I was in Israel last fall. The Hula Valley is host to some 30,000 common cranes and we went out there to watch them one cool morning. The birds were surrounded by fog and mountains in the dawn’s early light. I held up my iPhone to my spotting scope and captured that all too brief moment and sometimes when I’m surrounded by bunch of unruly home schoolers, I can look down and remember that moment of peace.
My lock screen is a picture I took of one of my all time favorite birds, the bobolink. I love it so much, the male’s territory song is my general ring tone on my iPhone. And really, what’s not to love? The males are all black with what looks like a bleach job on the back of their heads and their song is a cacophony of notes that almost sound like it should come from a flock and not a single bird. Part of my work involves long days in the field documenting bald eagle movement, which can be surprisingly boring since they stay perched over 90% of the day. On one of my transects were several bobolinks on territory and the males sang all day long to defend their area from rivals. On days when I’m trapped indoors, especially in winter, I can get a glimpse of summer and remember my moment with them.
The song of the bobolink.
Oh, March — so grey and brown. Is there any month more likely to infect a resident of the East Coast with wanderlust? Lately I’ve been treating my incipient spring fever with a form of simulated travel that can only be enjoyed on the iPad.
TourWrist is the app for a panoramic photo sharing service of the same name. Users upload panoramic photos, which are pegged to the geographical location where they’re shot. You can find them as pins on a map or browse through thumbnails.
The special advantage of the iPad app is a gyroscope setting. With that option turned on, you can hold your tablet up and view the panorama as if through a window, with the image changing as you rotate. Some of the panoramas are 360-degree “strips” — that is, with nothing but black, empty space above and below — but most are fully immersive, so if you hold the iPad directly above your head and look up, you’ll see the sky — or the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.
The odd thing about TourWrist is the mix of subject matter. Realtors and hoteliers post panoramas of their property for potential customers, and there’s a fair amount of random stuff from users who are just trying it out. In the UK, which has a lot of pins, you might find yourself standing at the center of the ancient stone circle at Castlerigg, and then hanging out with a teenager on his back porch in a suburb of Oxford.
If you just want to look at gorgeous vistas — and believe me, anyone who has ever cursed the inability of a snapshot to capture a great view should try panoramic photography — TourWrist could be frustrating. (There are filters so you can look at one kind of photo at a time, but oddly enough, no search feature.) If you’re also the kind of person who stops to examine the photographic listings posted outside realtor’s offices, then the opportunity to peer at dining rooms in Rome might be as alluring as the panoramas of famous landmarks. The things in-between are what I like best: a country church, a spot on a hiking trail, the old square of a small town in France. These things seldom end up in travel brochures, but they happen to have attracted the camera of a local hobbyist, who has been generous enough to share his or her little corner of the world.
And if you just want to be wowed, I recommend the fifty — count ‘em fifty — panoramas shot on the outrageously picturesque streets of Bruges.