Welcome to the latest edutainment-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Based on the huge volume of recent app releases we’ve wanted to cover over the past couple of weeks, we’re taking relatively brief looks at the most notable ones today. Five of the six titles below are educational book and/or singalong apps, and the last is an interesting interactive liquid simulator.
Our top picks of the week are the nursery rhyme titles Baa Baa Black Sheep and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but they’re very different from each other in execution and appeal. Read on for all the details.
We’ve been waiting for Duck Duck Moose’s latest application ever since the company teased it back in May, even though we weren’t exactly sure what the final release would turn out to be. Thankfully, the iPhone and iPod touch version of Baa Baa Black Sheep ($2, version 1.0.1) actually combines both the same-named classic song with Row Row Row Your Boat in a novel way that matches the impressive standards set by the company’s best prior apps. Young players can tap the screen to interact with cartoony sheep, sea creatures, and people as the Row Your Boat song plays, initially dropping and raising the anchor of a boat to look for random items that have been scattered through the water and landscape. Once on shore, the song and theme changes to Baa Baa Black Sheep—and subsequently, other sheep color variations—letting the player hear the nursery rhyme as three people harvest the sheep’s wool. Repeating the process lets you discover more of the hidden items, with a sparkling visual and sound effect combination every time you find four.
Though it’s not surprising given how excellent Duck Duck Moose’s prior releases have been, Baa Baa Black Sheep’s ability to completely enrapture kids is still pretty impressive: unlike the earlier Itsy Bitsy Spider, which used one similarly brief rhyme and an item-collection theme as a hook to keep children interested, the combination of two different rhymes here gave the developers more screens to fill with interesting characters and activities. Consequently, the process of exploring the app’s content takes longer and feels deeper, all while parents and kids alike absorb the company’s beautiful, funny artwork and hear charmingly orchestral renditions of both songs. Fans of prior Duck Duck Moose titles will no doubt recognize bits of the art from earlier titles, but there’s so much new here to enjoy that the $2 asking price feels justified. It even looks great when scaled up for the iPad’s screen—here’s hoping that unified iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch versions aren’t too far off in Duck Duck Moose’s future. iLounge Rating: A-.
We were initially pretty excited about Scholastic’s new Clifford Be Big with Words on iPad ($3, version 1.0), an educational application that uses “the Big Red Dog” Clifford as a hook for a simple spelling game. After a brief introduction, a canvas is shown atop an easel with a palette, and the young player is supposed to choose three letters by dragging them one at a time from the palette to the canvas. This forms short words automatically, since the app constantly revises the letter choices to ensure that only real words will be generated. Once complete, the word is spelled out letter-by-letter, then spoken out, then illustrated with a painting.
Unfortunately, Clifford only appears in a handful of the pictures and has no role in the actual game, which consists solely of repeating the word-creating exercise again and again as a single music track plays. Be Big with Words feels a little pricey for an iPad-only application with little depth—if it drops in price or adds additional words, hopefully with more Clifford-specific art, it might be worth grabbing for young kids. iLounge Rating: B-.
Another Scholastic iPad application, I Spy Spooky Mansion for iPad ($4), is designed for somewhat older kids—it’s an exploration game where the player is given lists of items to find in the rooms of a creepy old house, one room and several items at a time. You unlock additional rooms as a given room’s list is completed.
Each room is a still image that needs to be magnified with pinch gestures and studied carefully to find what’s missing, which is actually surprisingly compelling because the images are highly detailed and full of interesting little details; the mood is completed with fine, fittingly spooky background music that plays as you hunt around for items on the list. Though there’s an early hiccup in the title as two shoes in a decrepit study turn out to be only one item, and there are too few rooms or replay value to justify the $4 asking price, what’s here would be quite nice at a discounted price. Scholastic could easily make this app better by adding additional content, and create fantastic sequels by animating the images rather than leaving them completely static. The potential of the pinch and expand to explore “book” format is huge; I Spy only begins to tap it with a good theme and so-so execution. iLounge Rating: B-.
Lazy Larry Lizard ($5, version 1.1) from Wasabi Productions is a rare example of an iPad-only kids’ application that’s locked into vertical orientation—at first, the plain on-screen text and color illustrations look like nothing more than what one would find in an ePub book download from iBooks. But this children’s storybook winds up combining interactive animated artwork and voice samples in a manner that wouldn’t be possible in iBooks; the reader is directed to interact with the illustrations as either a person or the application reads the story aloud. “Look! Under that rock there’s a tell-tale sign,” says one page, “Let’s poke Larry one more time!” Touching Larry’s tail leads the lizard to turn around, talk, and then disappear, a series of events that repeats on most of the pages, only with different animations and sounds. It’s fun, cute, and actually a really nice evolution of the traditional storybook.
The only problem? Lazy Larry Lizard is only seven pages long, not including the cover, settings, and The End pages, which sorta-kinda bring it up to ten—far too short and limited for a $5 application of this sort. But the concept’s a good one, and we hope that Wasabi will expand both this title and its library; making books interactive surely increases their appeal to younger readers, so when a developer finds the right price, length, and level of animation and audio to offer in this format, kids’ books on the iPad may well wind up being more popular than they were in printed form before. iLounge Rating: C.
Taking a completely different approach from Duck Duck Moose’s titles, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Preschool Storybook Piano ($1) from Kiboomu/Oneapp Studio offers equivalently excellent value for its low asking price. Here, the screen of an iPhone or iPod touch is divided roughly in half, the top defaulting to an automatic scrolling image with a cartoony telling of the classic nursery rhyme, while the bottom contains a piano that lets you play along to the song—if you want. Settings enable you to switch between xylophone, piano, guitar, banjo, bell, flute, harp, and pig sound effects for the piano’s keys, while buttons let you start the song and record your own performance as it plays.
The strength of Twinkle Twinkle is that it doesn’t force the player to perform—an initial screen provides four buttons that change the on-screen displays to either display the aforementioned art (“Play and Sing Along”), only musical notes (“Learn the Song” mode), only lyrics in English, French, or Spanish (“Karaoke Mode”), or a combination of lyrics atop the art (“Free Style Mode”). Though the buttons could stand to be labelled more clearly, and the piano instructional content could be scaled for even younger players to understand, the options effectively enable kids of any age and skill level to interact with the app as either observers, singers, or junior piano players, following along with words or on-screen keying cues to learn the song. If there’s anything aesthetic here that could stand to be even better, it’s the entirely flat artwork, which would look more impressive with parallax separation between the objects and the backgrounds. But for $1, this is a really fun and educational little app that will hook young players in one way or another. iLounge Rating: A-.
Last up in this roundup is a title that’s not educational but will be of interest to young children anyway: Tobias Miller’s LiquiPad HD ($2, version 1.0) is an iPad-only application that overlays an interactive fluid simulator on top of one of 12 pieces of included artwork, or alternately upon any picture you select from your own Photos library. What’s cool about LiquiPad isn’t the originality of the concept—there have been many liquid simulators found in software for other platforms—but rather the fact that you can seemingly interact with the liquid using touch, and watch as raindrops or tracing effects automatically impact the display in front of you. There’s also a choice of four types of liquid—water, oil, syrup, or gel—that increase in thickness, resulting in slower returns of the pool to its original flat shape. Tilting the iPad unfortunately doesn’t do anything to the liquid.
Ultimately, applications like LiquiPad HD are ideally suited to both the iPad and the App Store at low price points like this one—the combination of this platform’s graphics power, touch interface, and unique software distribution mechanism makes it plausible to create something as simple and cool as this. This specific application falls short only in execution and scope, as the liquid could stand to be even more photorealistic, and the deformation effects would really benefit from an increase in variety, as more powerful, smaller raindrops, big splashes, and greater control over the types of fluid would make this more than a cool little demo. This is a good start, however, and we’re anxious to see this developer do even more with the concept. iLounge Rating: B.