While we tend to care most about new applications that actually do something, there’s also a warm place in our hearts for titles that just show off what Apple’s devices are capable of doing—at least, when they have cool features and sell for the right (low) prices. In today’s Small Apps + Updates, we’re looking at three titles that might be understood as next-generation interactive screensavers, each using interesting particle effects and multi-touch interactions in a slightly different way, as well as two versions of a digital publication called Edition29, and finally, a considerable update to an old favorite, the roller coaster simulation AirCoaster.
Our top picks of the bunch are AirCoaster, Midnight HD and Uzu. Read on for all the details.
The fact that Gravilux ($1, version 1.3) by Scott Snibbe is both iPhone and iPad compatible is one of its strongest attractions; it is the most demo-like of all of the applications covered in this roundup. On both screen sizes, Gravilux presents you with a grid of dots that deform wherever you touch the screen; one mode turns your fingers into magnets, and the other into repulsers, attracting or repelling the dots, while settings let you change the colors, sizes, and behaviors of the dots.
No sonic accompaniment, few frills, and less than intuitive settings prevent the experience of using the application from being truly engrossing, but when you learn how the settings work, Gravilux begins to generate interestingly noisy patterns that feel like a fusion of plasma balls and shakable snow domes. Better guidance for the settings, some audio, and more visual effects could make this really cool. iLounge Rating: C+.
Hyperbolic Magnetism’s Midnight HD ($1, version 1.1) is an iPad-only release—a bummer for those who might want to use it without buying a separate app for iPhones and iPod touches—but it’s one of the most impressive particle demonstrations we’ve yet seen on Apple’s tablet. Left untouched, the application shows tiny white glowing lines that appear to be swimming in a completely black field, casting light in rays outwards from the center of the screen. Placing one finger on the screen creates an orange explosion of radiating particles, mildly disrupting the field until you release your finger. If Midnight did nothing more than this, it would be pretty neat.
But it does a lot more. Two fingers in close proximity transform you into a magnet, attracting the particles in an almost magical swirl, creating a larger vortex as you expand your fingers outwards. Four fingers freeze the particles and let you swipe to rotate the entire collection in 3-D, a Matrix bullet time-like effect, and five fingers creates a huge magnetic swirl that—like the two-finger magnet—can be tossed from one side of the screen to the other. Ten fingers activates or deactivates the particles’ glow, and other finger combinations have other effects, with a just-released point update adding a psuedo time-reversing effect that we haven’t quite been able to master. More than any other application we’ve seen, Midnight HD makes you feel as if you’ve just developed the power to control energy with your fingers; the only things we’d love to see it gain are a settings menu with even more visual effect options, and a little audio. It’s otherwise fantastic. iLounge Rating: A-.
Colordodge Labs’ Uzu ($1, version 1.0.1) is also an iPad-only application with a separately sold version for the iPhone. It’s effectively the same concept as Midnight HD, only with different particle behaviors and colors that we enjoyed, but would rank a step under Midnight’s. Here, the particles are purely line based without glowing effects, so when you touch the screen with one finger, the emanating lines look like sparks; two fingers create magnetism that results in line-based bouncing particles, three and four create different types of swirls, and five freeze time with the ability to swipe to shift particles in any direction you choose.
Novel here are the use of three default particle colors at once, with yellow ones closest to you in space, orange in the middle, and red at the back, a design decision that makes the time-stopping shifts look great, and the additional effects you can trigger with six through nine fingers—ten lets you make radical changes to the size, colors, and shape of particles. Once again, some audio and a proper settings menu would be nice additions here; the unique effects and fun multitouch interactivity are solid hooks. iLounge Rating: B+.
We’ve tested a lot of iPad-formatted digital magazines over the past several months, and are always on the lookout for new offerings with smart ideas; Apple clearly is, too. So we were intrigued when we saw that 29GPS’s series of Edition29-branded publications were being featured on the iPad version of the App Store, which sometimes but not always favors style over substance when spotlighting new offerings. The two Edition29 issues we downloaded, Edition29 Cinema 001 ($3, version 1.0) and Edition29_Architecture_002 ($3, version 1.0), turned out to have interesting interfaces, but content that we wouldn’t rush to recommend. They’re both designed to be read solely in portrait orientation, with infrequent video clips that can be rotated if you prefer.
Cinema 001 is a movie magazine that blends studio-provided photography, scant text, and intermittent voiceovers and video clips into two-dimensional layouts that make interesting but not ideal use of the iPad’s display. Most of the early pages are half white and half movie stills, sometimes with slight panning for the stills, with later pages moving to full screen-filling images and awkwardly split two-screen photos that can only be viewed one at a time, or held in the middle with a transition. Occasional “+” buttons to call up additional text that varies from caption- to feature-quality, sometimes filling an empty spot on the page, and at other times overlapping and obscuring the photos; these buttons make complete sense on pages that were already full, but none on pages that would otherwise have large empty swaths of space. Also odd are single-page layouts that merely repeat the same photo twice, one slightly larger than the other but panning without adding any impact to the visuals; a single image with a Ken Burns effect, or better yet, user interactivity, would have been a better idea in most cases.
Architecture_002 uses similar tools and layouts to show off distinctive houses on five continents, combining voiceovers—here, from featured architects, often in recorded phone call quality—with still and panning photographs that alternate between half- and fully-filled pages, sometimes with pop-up text. Here, the content appears to have been supplied by the featured architects and their partners, which 29GPS appears to have gathered and laid out within the app, acting as an aggregator. The result is a collection of impressive images and somewhat interesting text and multimedia content that lacks for the sort of structure and insight an interviewer or editor can bring to projects; this, 29GPS suggests, is done in its role of a “curator” rather than as an editor. Whether you as a reader will care about this distinction is arguable, but as with Cinema 001, the idea of just turning over entire publications to movie studios and other businesses is concerning, except of course that the same thing has been happening less obviously in print publications, as well.
What we liked about the Edition29 applications was their core interface. A translucent and almost invisible red square is found on every upper left page corner, waiting to be touched to activate top and left bars that display the current date and time, plus navigation options. This feature enables you to browse a thumbnail index, add bookmarks, jump to related web sites, see Edition29’s Twitter followers—why, we don’t know—and even change the background audio tracks played for ambient noise as you read the publications. A GPS feature enables each application to tell you your current distance from the subject of the article, a novelty that helps to nicely fill the translucent bars. If nothing else, 29GPS got this part of each application very close to just right, and other publications could stand to learn from it; whether you find corporate-supplied content worth paying $3 per issue for is up to you. iLounge Rating: B-.
The last application we look at here is the updated AirCoaster ($1, version 1.5) by Ziconic, the most recent version of an application that we first covered in early 2009 when it was offered under the name SkyCoaster 3D, and revisited when it added compass and game features in an incarnation called AirCoaster: Game Mode. This roller coaster simulator application has gone through more name changes and feature tweaks than any other offering we can recall having tested, as additional versions have been released and then discontinued over time, such that there is now a single universal application under a single simple name that runs on iPhones and iPads alike. It contains Game Mode, with balloon-popping features we’ve previously described, 12 background themes, four different songs, and a staggering number of options that need to be seen to be believed. The core graphics engine now includes a realistic looking departure and arrival station for the roller coaster—a great addition—as well as the ability to display multiple coasters on the tracks at once, albeit with some frame rate hiccups here and there.
We’re mentioning AirCoaster again for two primary reasons: the application’s support for the iPad, which provides an even more immersive experience than on Apple’s pocket devices, and its inclusion of a full, complex track-building engine with community sharing and development features. At this point, AirCoaster provides you with an ability to try numerous free downloadable tracks full of creative ideas—some amateur, some pretty cool—and a graphics engine that enables increasingly realistic 3-D models of twisting and turning courses. Though the app still requires you to do too much of the work in selecting background art, music, and track materials for yourself each time you load a new track—community members sometimes advise you which features to turn on and off—there’s a ton to be seen and enjoyed here, even if the primary activity apart from building tracks on your own is just hitting a play button and enjoying a 3-D ride through various environments. The low price for AirCoaster offsets the fact that its many name changes and variants have occasionally forced update charges, but considering the scope of this application, that’s hard to mind. All we’d like to see is an evolution of the application to simplify its settings, while enabling track designers to share settings and possibly new art and audio with the community. Ziconic has come a very long way over the last year and a half, so we can’t wait to see what’s next. iLounge Rating: B+.