Welcome to the final 2009 edition of Weird and Small Apps, which we’ll be evolving in 2010 into a new column—one that accommodates everything from the truly weird and miniature applications we’ve previously reviewed, to larger applications that we’d prefer to cover only briefly. To that end, this edition includes a mix of big and small applications that we’ve been playing with in recent weeks, each worthy of attention but not extended reviews.
The top pick of the bunch is ReelDirector from Nexvio, followed by Ustream Live Broadcast from Ustream.tv. Read on for all the details.
Following in the footsteps of Duck Duck Moose, one of our very favorite edutainment app developers, Tickle Tap Apps/zinc Roe has come up with three different kids apps that are a little too short and simple for their $2 prices, but really fun nonetheless. They’re each designed for preschoolers, and have enough content to occupy a few minutes of a child’s time before being put down; with greater depth, replay value, and/or programming, they’d be truly great apps.
Color Collector is the only one of the apps that requires an iPhone—at least, until iPod touches get cameras. The screen has a circular porthole that displays whatever the camera is currently seeing, along with a ring of six colors. Kids are supposed to use the iPhone to spot and capture colors, tapping on the screen once they’ve focused on something red, orange, yellow, purple, blue, or green. Finding a color earns a star, and little fish animations play as the colors are collected. Apart from a problem that’s at least as much the iPhone’s fault as the app’s—Color Collector’s process of analyzing the content of Apple’s less than accurate camera colors gets the colors wrong almost as often as it gets them right—the app is a fun idea until the collecting process ends and a short animation plays. Successive challenges with more colors would be a great addition; for now, it’s just a little too short and buggy. iLounge Rating: B-.
Field Flier is the adorable app of the bunch, presenting kids with a pink and red flying bird that is touch-guided against a simple cartoony backdrop with 12 targets. Touch a target and Robin the bird flies over and interacts with a nearby object—a swing, tree trunk, pond, or radio—with a voiceover that explains what the bird is doing. “Robin is swinging,” says the voice, enthusiastically, and “Robin is reading,” as the bird pulls a newspaper from the tree. A light beat in the background and falling leaves keep the title from looking or sounding boring; something’s always moving or making noise. Like Color Collector, there’s too little to do here, but the core concept is really smart, and the execution is great for kids: the animation, sounds, voices, and interface are all just right. With more backdrops, Field Flier would be worthy of a high recommendation. iLounge Rating: B.
Pattern Painter is the last of the titles, and one that initially seemed like it had great potential before fizzling out. All it does is present a series of shape-based patterns, alternating with “trace the shape” challenges that are little more than tracing a square, a circle, and a triangle over and over again—no additional shapes are offered. Cartoony dog, cat, and bird animations are complete with cute little noises, and an enthusiastic voiceover brings you through the challenges, all nice touches that can’t mask how little there is to do here; tracing begins to repeat itself after only two minutes. In its current form, we wouldn’t recommend Pattern Painter, but as with the other applications, it could easily become better with more content. iLounge Rating: C+.
Though we wouldn’t want to trivialize any of the apps in this section by using the words “small” or “weird” to describe them, most were programs that we downloaded some time ago, played with, and didn’t find a lot of subsequent use for. This isn’t to say that they’re bad apps, but rather, with only one exception, they initially sounded really interesting and then didn’t merit additional attention thereafter; recent updates and improvements have brought them back onto our radar.
Layar Reality Browser (Free) from Layar is an app with a ton of potential in certain environments, but limited value in others. It is, in short, an augmented reality application—one that combines four types of data: live video from the camera of an iPhone 3GS, your current GPS location, your current compass orientation, and an additional “layer” of information downloaded from the Internet. Putting all these things together, Layar allows a user to see location-specific information overlaid on images of his or her surroundings, moving the information as the camera (and compass) are moved. Stand at your house, set the right radius, and turn around to see local businesses indicated as dots or icons on the screen, moving as you do; click on any one to pull up information about it.
The key to Layar’s appeal is its ability to swap the data layers, and the key to its eventual profitability is its display of advertising banners along with the data it’s showing: one downloadable layer helps you find nearby In-n-Out burger restaurants, another uses a broader restaurant base, and still others help you locate apartments, tickets, and mountain peak heights. Unfortunately, the layers we downloaded were of limited use in suburban settings, and Layar has been pulled for some reason from the App Store before it receives a major update. We plan to revisit the app in greater detail if and when it reappears. iLounge Rating: NR.
Knocking Live Video (Free) from Pointy Heads LLC is an app we really wanted to like, but we had a variety of problems trying to use it immediately after it was released. The concept: stream live video from your iPhone 3G or 3GS directly to another one, via the 3G network or via Wi-Fi, notably to or from one person at a time—not both sides at once. There’s no audio except for the sound of a “knock” when the broadcast is about to begin, but the video streams decently even when you’re on a cellular network, improving in frame rate when Wi-Fi and/or a 3GS are being used for broadcasting.
That’s assuming, unfortunately, that you can get the connection to work. We had major problems establishing connections with version 1.0 of the software, and even after updating to version 1.1, there were issues. You won’t be able to receive videos at all if you don’t authorize push notifications—it took us a little while to figure this one out—and streams abruptly quit sometimes after a minute or so, even over Wi-Fi. In a mostly successful effort to make “knocking” easier, Pointy Heads requires users to sign up for accounts, but ties the accounts to individual devices. We had various problems logging into previously created accounts, but when we set up new ones and shared the details with friends, turning push notifications on, everything worked as expected within the program’s limitations. When Knocking Live Video works, it demonstrates some of the iPhone’s amazing future potential as an instant point-to-point video broadcasting device, but its instabilities, lack of audio, and under-documented dependence on push notifications could all use some extra developer attention. iLounge Rating: B-.
Ustream Live Broadcaster (free) from Ustream.tv is considerably more impressive in certain ways. Rather than taking the one-to-one approach of Knocking Live Video, it enables any iPhone 3G or 3GS to stream video directly to a Ustream server, enabling multiple people to experience nearly live video and audio from your device at the same time—over the web. After signing up for a free account, Live Broadcaster provides you with a shortened URL that’s easy to share with friends, linked to a channel on its web site; people can find you by your username and watch whatever you’re sharing. Video and audio work over 3G or Wi-Fi, and though the frame rate drops significantly when on 3G, the fact that it’s possible at all with audio—on an iPhone 3G, no less—is great. On Wi-Fi, the audio is smooth and the video runs at roughly 10 frames per second, going up and down based on the amount of motion and change from video frame to frame. Once a video’s finished, you can save it and share it over Ustream’s servers, or delete it. This is all powerful, impressive stuff.
Having said all of that, there are obvious ways that Ustream Live Broadcaster could be improved. It divides the screen into portions so that the broadcaster can simultaneously see the video that’s being sent, monitor a text chat, and turn a poll on and off, but doesn’t enable participation in the chat or customization of the poll’s question or answers. Ustream also doesn’t offer enough privacy settings when broadcasting from the iPhone, so we found that people we didn’t know were observing our streams when we were broadcasting to each other. Finally, the app works only for broadcasting, rather than receiving, so a separate free application called Ustream Viewing Application is required for iPhone and iPod touch users to watch live and recorded content; unfortunately, the app currently only provides access to popular and featured videos, rather than typical user-generated ones, and iPhone/touch Safari can’t access videos through the Ustream web pages. Ustream’s broadcasting application does what it’s supposed to do, and quite well, but for the time being, it will disappoint potential iPhone-based viewers as much as it excites budding broadcasters. iLounge Rating (Ustream Live Broadcaster): B+.
Last but not least is ReelDirector ($8) from Nexvio, which is expensive by iPhone application standards but offers real value for users—it is a light iMovie-style video editing program for the iPhone 3GS, and the most polished of all the applications in today’s article. The premise: you can edit together video clips you’ve recorded on the 3GS, as well as audio clips and photos, with trimming, transitions, music, and text overlays. There are limitations—music needs to be imported via a Wi-Fi, file-by-file upload from your computer rather than taken from the device’s music library, for instance—but there’s a huge jump from the iPhone’s integrated “record a clip, trim and send” limitations to what ReelDirector offers, and Nexvio has continued to add and refine features over several iterations of the app.
Though we could easily do a lengthy review of ReelDirector, several points suffice to sum up its capabilities. We recorded home videos with the iPhone 3GS, added start and end title bars, photos, and various transitions to them, trimmed the clips, overlaid music on top of one, and had properly rendered results in each case that were ready to e-mail or download from the device back to a computer—at 480×360 resolution. With the exception of the music step, which requires the aforementioned Wi-Fi synchronization process, everything could be accomplished without the use of a Mac or PC, and though the results were modestly distinguishable from what an amateur could accomplish with a subset of iMovie’s capabilities, they were very close—much closer than anyone would expect from movies completely chopped, titled, and mixed on a phone. Given the program’s similarities to iMovie, and the utility of the tools, it’s easy to imagine Apple offering the same functionality in iPhones going forward; until then, ReelDirector is a great program for those who need to edit their own videos on the go. iLounge Rating: A-.