The twitchiness of the app technology used to present the material began to irritate – but the content is out of this world.
Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe Review
by on May 18, 2012
Here, we essentially have a digital book charismatically presented by Professor Brian Cox; there’s text, photos, diagrams and video that streams into the app (so you need to be online to watch the movies), and the main navigation interface from which you get to each article is a pretty 3D animation that swoops in and out from the most macro to the most micro levels, as you flick between the different sections.
The content itself is superb, even if you watched the BBC series Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe from which much of the material is drawn; Cox presents and writes in an accessible and empowering way. Sure, some of the concepts are hard to grasp – and we mean for professional scientists, not just armchair dabblers like us – and the fixed, finite nature of the book compared to, say, Wikipedia, means that developments at the cutting edge of science at facilities such as the LHC won’t inform its conclusions about the nature of matter. You can’t, however, fail to engage with Cox’s draw-some-concentric-lines-with-a-stick-in-some-dirt-to-explain-elliptical-orbits brand of presentation, and his almost schoolboy enthusiasm is utterly infectious.
We’re a little less gushing in our admiration for the Glide Publishing engine that has been used to present the book. Essentially, every section is presented as one long text box, interspersed with in-line photos and movies that you scroll with your finger. The text is clear and usually easy to read, but it’s the way that you view the pictures and movies that rankles a bit. As you’re scrolling the text, thumbnails for images, slideshows and movies that come near the middle of the screen automatically expand to cover the whole screen; in the case of movies, they start playing too. The first couple of times you see this, you’re impressed. It seems fluid, fitting and like a natural and inevitable interaction method for books on an iPad.
The infatuation doesn’t last, however. In order to suppress this move to full screen – which, after all, can disrupt the flow of your reading – you either have to carefully position the thumbnail above or below the centre of the screen, or keep your finger on the screen as you scroll past it. True, none of the sections are especially long, so you’re perhaps not going to be settling in for a long, lean-back reading session, but it nevertheless began to irritate us that we had to devote a bit of our subconscious just to stop the damn thing jumping around as you’re trying to read it.
It also suffers a tiny bit by the content not having been created explicitly with this app. Someone’s worked hard to take two major BBC series and a book and smoosh them together into a coherent whole, but you can see the joins sometimes. What’s more, the app description and marketing materials might make you expect lots of 3D models and interactive graphics; in truth, the 3D is limited to what is essentially the contents page, and the flat, non-interactive illustrations and diagrams – which looked so generous and lush in the printed book – feel mean and a little silly crushed into here.
But take a step back, and remember that you don’t buy an app like this for the app itself, just like you don’t buy a book to collect a few hundred sheets of paper. The content’s the thing, and the knowledge in here is almost priceless. Happily, it’s yours for a fiver (assuming yours isn’t an original iPad; it won’t work on that), a steal when the books and Blu-rays for the two series cost something like ten times that.
Download this app: Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe for iPad
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Review courtesy of Tap!