iOS Gems: Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, Bugsy’s Kindergarten Reading 2.0 + Chuck’s Challenge
Welcome to our latest edition of iOS Gems! Today, we’re looking at two educational titles—one a book-like interactive app for older kids, the other a quiz app for kindergarteners—as well as a game and a somewhat unique Twitter browser.
Our top picks of the week are Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe and Chuck’s Challenge. Read on for all the details!
While it’s hardly the fault of educators that students struggle to understand the breadth and depth of modern science, there’s clearly a need for more compelling and interactive educational materials, and Apple’s iPad has become the platform of choice for this purpose—everything from treatises to textbooks now appears in the iTunes Store. So it’s not entirely surprising that HarperCollins Publishers has released the broad sweep atoms-to-universe science app Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe ($7) as an iPad exclusive; due to the horsepower it requires, it’s actually specific to the second- and third-generation iPad models.
If you’re familiar with Push Pop Press’s impressively thoughtful user interface for the iPad book Al Gore: Our Choice, you’ll understand the basics of Wonders of the Universe: HarperCollins uses an extremely straightforward, linear interface to organize and present a huge quantity of text, photographic, and video content: swiping left and right moves you between sections/chapters of the “book,” while moving up and down lets you consume chunks of book chapters. While Wonders is hardly the first app to use such a system, the manner in which it combines text, photos, and videos into ribbons—complete with auto-expanding photos and videos that grow to fill the screen, then shrink with an upward or downward gesture—really works to balance content presentation and intuitive navigation.
From a content perspective, Wonders of the Universe is a great primer for deeper scientific learning; a jack of all trades rather than an effort to dive deeply into every subject it covers. Two and a half hours worth of videos—generally streaming—star Professor Brian Cox, a particle physicist whose upbeat, gentle manner mirrors fellow BBC television star Jamie Oliver, bringing youthful life into what could otherwise be very dry discussions of the matter inside stars or the birth of the universe, amongst many other topics. There’s enough here to keep a user engaged for well past the raw video running time, however, as the app has a playground feel, full of different nooks to explore at one’s own pace rather than being forced through a single narrative structure. A single illustration, created with Star Trek-style colors and graphic design, could occupy your attention for minutes on its own.
Eye candy is largely to blame for the second- and third-generation iPad hardware requirement—and the app wouldn’t be the same without it. In addition to the structured information it contains, Wonders of the Universe uses a realtime 3-D interface that stunningly makes smooth transitions from displaying sub-atomic matter to galaxies, all while allowing the user to play a little with highly detailed, well-labelled on-screen models. Rather than retreating off-screen and consequently introducing pauses or loading times, this part of the interface remains present at all times, complete with the option to pinch-zoom or pan around the current scene.
HarperCollins has a huge hit on its hands with Wonders of the Universe, which really nails everything from content to interface and broad accessibility. This is another example of how the iPad is becoming a transformative educational tool, one that with the right software can go so far beyond its predecessors as to antiquate older teaching methods. Junior high school students should consider this a must-experience before moving into advanced science classes. iLounge Rating: A.
Late last year, we reviewed an edutainment title called Bugsy’s Kindergarten Reading 1.0 by Peapod Labs, and found it to be pretty rough around the edges—a series of letter, phonic, and word recognizing quizzes tied together with a confusing and not particularly fun sticker-buying incentive system. Peapod has substantially revised the app for Bugsy Kindergarten Reading 2.0 ($3), using a very similar structure to Bugsy Pre-K, which we covered last month.
Whereas Bugsy Pre-K featured the company’s signature hamster in a bedroom, playing simple color-, sound-, and letter-matching games with rewards from a toy chest, Bugsy Kindergarten Reading places the character on the surface of the moon with a rocket that’s ready to blast into space. Tap the rocket and Bugsy flies into a starfield—a mostly flat backdrop with a question at the top, and several card-shaped possible answers below. Kids receive space toy-like rewards after solving several “find the word,” “find the letter,” and “match the sound” quizzes in a row. All of the questions and answered are fully voice-narrated, with nice illustrations for most of the multiple-choice cards, and decent animations as the toys you collect move around on or above the moon. Cheery music plays, and just in case the child doesn’t know what to do between quizzes, the rocket’s engine flares with a “let’s go” or “let’s play” voice prompt.
Now that it’s been updated, Bugsy’s only conspicuous issues are in the still-annoying Sign In prompt that displays when the app’s loaded—apps, particularly ones for kids, shouldn’t do this—and the somewhat shallow toy reward system, which is better than what Bugsy Kindergarten had before, but not really different from what Bugsy Pre-K offers to younger kids. Thankfully the scope of the quiz content is age appropriate, and remains distinctive enough to justify this as a separate app. iLounge Rating: B.
Over twenty years ago, Atari’s ill-fated Lynx handheld console hosted a brilliant little game called Chip’s Challenge—an overhead puzzler that was easy enough for kids to understand but challenging enough to enthrall even adults. Most likely because its 2-D graphics were unimpressive at a time when the Lynx was pushing early 3-D artwork, Chip’s Challenge was at best a cult hit, widely discussed amongst members of the Lynx community before seeing ports to several computer platforms. Most people had no idea that a sequel had been in the works, scuttled by developer Chuck Sommerville after issues with the holder of the Chip’s Challenge name, or that Sommerville had recently come up with an alternative: Chuck’s Challenge (Free/$2), released by Niffler.
As with Chip’s Challenge, there’s going to be absolutely no way to convince you to try Chuck’s Challenge without using two words: “trust us.” And even then, because Chuck’s Challenge eases players into its gameplay with several extremely easy levels—ones that will feel a little nostalgic to Chip’s Challenge fans—some players will abandon ship before seeing the genius of Sommerville’s maze and puzzle designs. Making things worse, the game features some ham-handed story dialogue, plus music and menu designs that feel like they’re straight out of the 1990’s. Unless you turn off the story and just start making your way through the puzzles one by one, you’re most likely not going to be impressed enough to keep playing.
But… turn off the story and keep playing. The levels just get smarter and more complex as you move along, with the alien main character interacting with the same types of colored keys, elemental surfaces, and moving creatures that made Chip’s Challenge great. There are 25 levels in the free app, with an additional 75 available for $2—or $1 per 25 levels if you want to buy them separately—plus race and weekly challenge levels. Serious fans will love the built-in level creator, too. While this app could seriously stand to receive an audiovisual and story overhaul, the core puzzle gameplay will absolutely thrill fans of Chip’s Challenge; hopefully we won’t have to wait another twenty years for more levels and sequels. iLounge Rating: B+.
Every once in a while, a new app appears with a cute interface and very limited functionality—that’s Adam Bell’s Crest ($2) in a nutshell. Solely for the iPad, Crest fills an otherwise black screen with falling profile icons taken from people you’re following on Twitter. You can tap on one of the icons to see what each person has said, and a word bubble will appear with the individual tweet; each new tweet generates another block to tap on. Opening a window to compose a tweet can be done with a swipe gesture or a button at the top of the screen, while looking at pictures and other links embedded in a tweet occurs with a full-screen redirect to Twitter.com’s mobile page.
Simply put, Crest is what in a pre-App Store age would have been called a “demo”—a single good idea that isn’t fully developed enough. Even if you consider its presentation of tappable icon-based tweets to be interesting, which it is for the first few minutes, Crest does far too little to justify a $2 asking price, and doesn’t do anything besides the icon dropping screen with enough pizzazz to merit actually using as a Twitter client. Skip this one until and unless it receives some very substantial updates or a 100% price drop. iLounge Rating: D+.
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