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Review: Wonders of the Universe app

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I know what you’re thinking, right? I don’t post anything for months and then the first thing I go ahead and write up is a review for one of those heathen iPad apps! I’m rather fond of Brian Cox – both his personality and the way in which he can impart information and leave an impression on people. I’ve been interested in Astronomy since I was about 7 or 8 years old, and every now and then I like to go on an information binge on the topic – I generally find myself intrigued by all different kinds of sciences, but none – in my eyes at least, seem to be as awe-inspiring or as captivating as Astronomy.

I’ve come in to this app having already seen both of Brian Cox’s series of Astronomy documentaries: Wonders of the Solar System, and Wonders of the Universe (both of which are fantastic and well worth a watch). This app attempts to encompass the content of these series in to an interactive textbook of sorts. The app opens up with a short tutorial explaining how to use it – though you likely won’t need to even read it since it’s so well designed.

You start off with a view of our Galaxy – the Milky Way, move your finger around the screen to move the camera and take a look around, at which point some labels will pop up and you’ll be whisked away to that particular destination – if you’ve played any of the Mass Effect games and used the galaxy map you’ll find that navigating this app works in a very similar way – and I found that navigating the universe in such a way helped to cement my understanding of our cosmic neighbourhood.

Speaking of the design, this app is absolutely beautiful to look at, and tries to mimic the quality of the CGI effects that were in the TV show – the planets and moons of our solar system in particular look beautiful, and quite often it’s fun enough to just fly around and admire the scenery. Unfortunately you’re somewhat limited in how you can look at things, since the camera can only move to pre-set locations, you can’t actually move the camera around Mars of Jupiter to get a certain view of them, which is a bit of a shame given the production values that you can see here.

When you get to an object that you want to find out more about there’s a menu at the bottom of the screen with various topics to read – though it isn’t all just plan text, each article typically kicks off with a video – a snippet from the aforementioned documentaries (over two hours of footage is included in this app), and each article is typically accompanied with pictures and diagrams taken from or used the TV series.

Each of these articles was written by Brian Cox himself, so you know the information’s coming from a reliable source, though his enthusiasm for the subject doesn’t seem to shine through the same was as it does when you can actually hear him speaking – so for these reasons I think I’d prefer to watch Cox talk about Astronomy than write about it, though with that said, this app does cut away some of the “guff” that people often criticise about Cox’s work – though I think that to experience his work this way is to miss the point of the message what Cox is trying to convey in the first place. But if you want information rather than inspiration, this app is a good place to go.

I am a little disappointed at the lack of information on certain subjects though – the two furthest planets in our Solar System; Uranus and Neptune have next to zero information about them – people who don’t know much about space (the people who really want to get as much information as they can out of this app) are going to be wondering why Uranus’ rings move along the planet “vertically” rather than “horizontally”, and what’s up with that big dark spot on Neptune? These are questions to which there are no answers, or even speculation where it’s needed even though this information is readily available.

On the bright side it seems that new content is planned to be added to the app in the future – Cox has mentioned on his Twitter feed that information from future Wonders series will be added to the app – though whether this is through free app updates or paid add ons remains to be seen.

The Wonders app is a great app to dive in to if you’re curious about what wanders around in the night sky – but if you’ve got a hankering for some real in-depth information you could be best off looking for alternatives. I’d personally rather watch the TV show than own this app, but the app does provide a great supplement to the experience of the documentaries that Cox has produced – and with the high production values, snippets from the show and the shows fantastic soundtrack playing in the background as you explore the Wonders app is pretty good value for money.


Written by Pokeh

April 1, 2012 at 6:58 pm

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