Articles Reviews Technology

Stargazing on the iPad – a Window to Augmented Reality

ARTICLE: I’ve been a big fan of star gazing since I was very young. Living in places like Santa Barbara in the 1960s, and the “just built” Davis, California college town circa 1970, it was an amazing sight to sit outside at night and see the world spin against the sky of light. Anybody who still lives outside a major city, away from “light pollution,” can still marvel in this view that awed the ancients and gave rise to many of humanity’s myths, legends, and even elements of language still in popular use thousands of years later. When we moved into the city, my mom continued to get Astronomy magazine for most of my childhood, filled with amazing images of the galaxies and constellations. I got my first telescope as a tween, and sadly, it wasn’t as exciting as the NASA pictures you see in the magazines (or now on the Internet), since it wasn’t a top of the line Celestron, just a basic thin-tube model. The moon was big and bright, but anything else was a lumpy blob or threads in the wind.

About a month into owning my new Apple iPad 3G+WiFi model, I discovered a number of “apps” for stargazing (looking at the stars in the universe, not the latest celebrity fashion statement), and one of which just blew my mind, as it were. Seeing that Apple included one of these in their latest TV commercial, I thought I’d do a round-up of what apps are available, and what makes a couple of them so freakin’ amazing. In fact, my favorite, Vito Technology’s Star Walk, is one of the most dramatic examples of the future of augmented reality – which, for the layman, means adding to, or enhancing what you see in the real world. Heads-up displays in cars and aircraft are only an itsy bitsy example of this concept. Holding Star Walk on an iPad – with the use of GPS location technology, and gyroscope sensor data – is truly remarkable.

Star Walk with Me
So, let me just jump to my favorite, the aforementioned Star Walk. This 89MB, $4.99 app ($2.99 for iPhone) from Vito Technology (also: won an Apple Design Award for 2010. What it does: okay, here’s where it gets wild – take the iPad outside at night, hold it up in landscape mode (long way, side to side), and move it around to see the jaw-dropping “Star Spotter Function,” as they call it. The iPad screen becomes a “window” that shows the sky you’re actually looking at, and curves with the shape of the earth as you move the iPad; and when you point the iPad at a section of the sky with a particular constellation (group of stars), information about the constellation appears.

How cool is this? It’s like having a transparent sheet of glass that you point at the universe, and information about what you’re looking at is provided while enhancing your view. Try this in cloudy weather, where you can’t see the whole sky and it’s wicked cool. Move the iPad side to side, up and down, and the view changes to match where you’re pointing.

You can see just the basic info, such as lines connecting constellations (e.g., Ursa Major, etc.), or you can “drill down” (or “up”) for background information, scientific information, and much more. Portrait mode (long way, top-to-bottom) works also, but the sensor can flip/rotate the screen image if you start to go too far overhead.

If you ever wanted something that just made you suddenly realize you’re living in the future, this is one of those things. I can throw out adjectives here like amazing, stunning, or even “glorious,” and they would all be 100% true. This is simply a “must have” for anybody who loves astronomy, and this is one of those apps that can help you justify buying an iPad if you needed a reason beyond the hype and hoopla of the Mac faithful and gadget geeks. It’s also a compelling point to ensure you buy a version of any new Apple device (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) that includes the Digital Compass and GPS capability. There is a 3-D Earth View for selecting your location if you don’t have the GPS capability.

What’s more, the app offers a time machine mode to show what your sky view would look like at different points in time, moon phases, deep sky objects (Messier), and even meteor showers. The obligatory links to Wikipedia are also provided. It also has multi-tasking support for the updated iOS versions supporting things like listening to music while you stargaze.

Vito also makes a similar product for solar system gazing, called Solar Walk ($2.99), offering orbital views of the sun and planets, and information on each world in our system.

For Windows Mobile users, Vito also makes a bit different product called AstroNavigator ($19.95). It provides similar information 9,000 sky objects, but without the dramatic augmented reality features of the iPad app.

Pocket Sky Gazing
Some other notable apps worth trying out, include: “Pocket Universe: Virtual Sky Astronomy” ($2.99, 9MB; iPhone/iPad) from Craic Design. This is a similar product to Star Walk, but is a bit more informational than immersive (1/10th the file size of Star Walk). I found the design to be good for quick information about what I was looking at in the sky (see photo, this page).

Versions prior to 3.6 had some minor glitches, now fixed. I liked the “tonight’s sky” and “objects and events” information (these elements required 3G or WiFi). For kids there are Star Quiz games. Also plots the position of sun, moon and planets (including Pluto). This app is particularly nice on the iPhone, and the iPad version has a different interface, not simply “blown up.”

If you’re familiar with using an astrolabe in school, then you might like GoSoftWorks’ “GoSkyWatch Planetarium – the astronomy star guide” ($5.99 iPhone/iPad; 15MB). The “polar” view of the sky around the Earth is particularly nice (see photo, this page). It contains over 200 images of planets and deep sky objects. Neat features include time lapse animation by day, time, and sidereal day; finder to locate planet, star, DSOs. One neat feature, is constellation links to Ian Ridpath’s StarTales (Ridpath has numerous great books on the sky, stars, planets, and the universe).

This app also takes advantage of accelerometer and compass navigation capabilities of Apple devices. I actually got this for my iPod Touch after seeing it in Wired magazine last year. The new version is even better. There is also a free version as of this writing which lets you try this great app out.

There are now quite a few apps to choose from – this article covers just a few, obviously – and it’s worth exploring them all since your particular mindset may prefer one type of interface or “style” of information presentation.

Augmented Reality – Baby Steps
What makes the Vito app, in particular so amazing, is that it is a true forerunner of the kinds of information technology we will all have access to over the next couple of decades as we get more integrated personal data devices and better “cloud” data sources. Imagine going to an historical site like the Aztec ruins, and being able to hold up your iPad (or other tablet) and point it at the ruins and see a virtual window into what the locale looked like, generated from 3-D/CGI data. As you move your “window” around you, the view changes to show the civilization that used to be there. Perhaps it might happen with 3-D glasses with little built-in screens that opaque when activated, but that seems further off than what could be done “now” with something like this iPad app.

I have a wonderful book I bought back in 1991, called “Then and Now,” by Stefania Perring and Dominic Perring (Macmillan Publishing), that did something similar. The full color photo book would show a modern photograph of the Step Pyramid and then printed on clear plastic overlay, color artwork showing what it originally looked like. This was very cool as it showed sites like Nimrud, or the Temple of Karnak, “then and now” (hence the book’s title).

Being able to do something similar in real-time, on-site would be simply breathtaking – point your tablet at the world and travel back in time, while you’re actually there. And for those who didn’t want to travel, this would obviously be used for virtual immersive “distance based travel” to virtually visit a real world site, but also see the historical version in 360-degree surround view.

Welcome to the Future
If you love stargazing, or want to teach your kids more about the universe, or just want to show off what your Apple device can do, then get to the App Store and check out these great apps. Personally, I would not use software like this on a regular Mac or Windows PC, as it’s not “right there” as with the iPad versions. Simply put, welcome to the future people – my love of stargazing has been rekindled, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Article is Copr. © 2010 Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. Story originally appeared on

Articles Reviews Technology

Waking up to the iPad Wi-Fi+3G – Part One

ARTICLE: I pre-ordered my new Apple iPad 64GB Wi-Fi + 3G, and so it arrived yesterday afternoon (Friday). But, being busy this morning was my first opportunity to connect and sync to my iTunes PC, explore some Apps, and setup the general capabilities of this nifty new gizmo. Wow, very cool. I have zero buyer’s remorse. My hope is this will be the perfect ebook reader, portable video device, “new toy,” and also useful in case my Verizon FIOS connections die (it happens), and for things like controlling my Playstation 3 (“there’s an app for that”). The additional 3G connection is something I decided to wait for, over the standard Wi-Fi model.

First off, let me back up and admit I have been a Mac (Apple) fan since the days of the Apple II as a kid (I could only afford an Atari 800, then later a Commodore 64), when the first Macs came out I was doing graphic design and photography and lusted after the pricey Macintosh. When the Atari 1040ST came out, it was the best I could afford since a color capable Mac was very expensive. When I started working for a Apple retailer (Creative Computers) in California, I was first on the block to have a Powerbook 100, later moving to a Mac SE30, and then discovered the “factory refurb” models which made last year’s Macs super affordable. Soon that led to a Quadra 840AV, then a 9500, then a Blue/White PowerPC, then a G4. When I moved to Windows XP, I still always had a Mac, first the “Wallstreet” Mac notebook (the same one you see in Sex in the City and Independence Day, and the first Mission Impossible movie); then when the first 17-inch aluminum Intel Core2 OSX notebook came out, I got that and still use it today.

Christopher Simmons iPad 3G 64GB

I was using iTunes before it was called iTunes back when I had it running on a spare Mac 7200 which wasn’t good for much else, and had a paltry 500MB (not GB) hard drive. When the iPod came out, I was one of the first to own the 15GB white model, and when the iPod touch came out, I got it the day after Apple shipped the pre-orders. So, as you see I’m a bit of a computer guy, and Macs have helped me earn a living, compose music, publish a book, build hundreds of Web sites, and until about 2005 when I moved primarily to Windows for my daily work (typing on one now), Mac was my computing platform of choice. Apple has always provided a superb “out of box” experience, although it’s clear the company continues to evolve into a price conscious consumer products company and lifestyle brand, and less and less “the Mac company.”

This is even clear when opening up the box for the iPad. Gone are all the wonderful accouterments from the early days like the iPod 15GB, which had a dock, plastic rain case, instruction booklet, belt holster, earphones, and more. As the years have gone by when you now buy an iPod you pretty much get the device and the warranty card, a power connector, and not much else (I currently have four, including the white 15GB which needed a new battery a couple of years back, the little metallic square nano model, and the black 60GB color screen model — and the iTouch first generation). Similarly, the iPad is just the iPad in the box (still nicely wrapped in plastic as all Apple products have come for years now), a quickstart sheet, the warranty info, a power adapter and the now standard Apple USB cable. And, true to “classic Apple,” you still get the Apple stickers.

I had to buy a case, the normal dock, the keyboard dock, and pre-ordered the new Griffin horizontal dock (more on that next time). I had a cleaning shammy for the screen I had already bought for the iPod touch that has microfibers so as to not scratch screen (this should have been included with the iPad, frankly).

While this is all fairly normal for an Apple devotee, a new user might be confused as to what to do in setting up with iTunes (as is now typical no CD is included with software, so you have to understand how to go to Apple’s Web site, and download the software and install it, and then connect the iPad via USB cable to your PC, then iTunes will “see” the iPad and sync it).

Similarly there are no printed instructions describing how to enable your AT&T connection or Wi-Fi, although tech savvy folks will be able to simply go to “settings” on the main iPad screen, go to connections, and enter the security key for your local Wi-Fi router. If you don’t have a local Wi-Fi connection, the iPad is smart enough to popup a note about setting up your account with AT&T for the 3G connection. Since I had a strong Wi-Fi local network, mine didn’t even make me that offer. Smart.

To Apple’s credit, if you go down to your local Apple store, they will help walk you through anything you need to do to get started, and this is also why so many people were waiting in line at the nearby store this morning to buy theirs. So, I’m not the only one this morning syncing my iPad to my iTunes account, checking out the “apps” and seeing how it works.

First thoughts: Wow. Very cool. For those of us who have been wanting a “bigger iTouch,” this is it. On the nose. Built in speaker means you don’t have to use earbuds (unlike my iPod touch) and it fits comfortably in the hand like a magazine. The black rim around the edges of the screen gives you a perfect place for putting your thumbs when using it (lots of fingerprints already, wipe it again with my cleaning cloth). Video looks amazing, supporting 720p HD video. And normal video looks good, too. I had a purchased copy of the South Park Movie, and I had a couple of 720p movie trailers and they look gorgeous.

Since I had an old MobileMe account I hadn’t used lately, I went ahead and set that up, and it only took a moment. Cool, instant email without conflicting with my Gmail, and I don’t need to worry with connecting to my company mail server (I’m self-employed, own my own Web servers, so have lots of email options to choose from). I kind of miss the old “” email accounts, but the “” is fine, too. Apple is not just Mac anymore, welcome to the second decade of the 21st Century.

The one thing I found missing from the iPad, and perhaps the most definitive indication that “it’s not a Mac, dummy,” is that the number of included applications is very small. Perhaps less than a normal iPhone or touch. For those of us who have grown used to the wealth of applications for imaging, music, writing, and video included with any Mac (it’s one of the things that helps justify the higher cost of a new Mac vs. the usual cheapo Windows-based PC — real software not bloatware), it seems somehow a cheat to not see a whole slew of “ready to go” applications.

Even the book reader requires you first sync to your iTunes account, then download the iBooks reader from the app store. Certainly this forces you to learn how to drink the Apple kool-aid, but if you are used to an Amazon Kindle, it’s a few extra steps before you can get to scouting the book shelf. It is worth mentioning that the impending OS 4 update for the touch-capable Apple devices will likely include the basic applications at the get-go.

On the plus side it does force you to first have an account in the iTunes store, and perhaps it’s better to manage your credit card data there from your Mac/PC than entering that data on your iPad over a phone network. Anyway… once you launch the iBooks app, you have access to Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, complete with illustrations, to test out the reading capability. Nice.

So, how does it play as an e-book reader? Simple answer: I love it. I’ve been writing about the future of e-books for many years now, and I bought the Amazon Kindle when it first arrived, and I sent it back as the latency when going from page to page was awful for me since I have a pseudo-eidetic memory, which basically means every latent image gets burned into my brain and sticks there and I see it in my mind and that conflicts with visualizing a faraway place in the story I’m reading. Couldn’t deal with it. The e-ink page was lovely, but the latent negative image for each page turn was something I couldn’t get past. I looked at a newer model, and it was better but not perfect. A friend tells me his “Nook” from Barnes&Noble doesn’t have that issue, but I haven’t seen it. I haven’t looked at the Sony readers the past couple of years either. I’ve been waiting on the iPad. And it’s here. I’m holding it. Yeehah!

As I was saying, or typing, I’m looking at the Pooh book while I’m typing this. I love the page turning interface, simply being able to drag my finger across is just right. I also like the fact that after you sit with it a little bit, the screen dims just slightly so that the brightness level isn’t on full as with the menu screens. Nice.

In checking out the iBooks store, there are many new books and the NY Times list, but we’re still a long way off from being able to find and buy the books we want, much like the early days of the iTunes store (which should be due for a renaming next year since movies, rentals, audiobooks, and books are not exactly “tunes”). The iBooks store is separate from the main iTunes store right now which can be either annoying or a good idea for now, depending on your point of view. Frankly, the iTunes store used to be easier to shop when it was just music and the front page was all about the new music, but now it’s getting to be a bit like the old AOL (America Online) launch screens, with so many choices, and not the easiest to engage with just one genre. The movie/TV area is actually simpler to use than the music area. And, the “App store” area is a bit cumbersome. Searching for things takes into account the entire space and not just the section you’re in, which can be a bit annoying.

Tonight and tomorrow I’ll spend more time playing with the apps. To start with, I got the following from the app store (all are free, except a couple):
1) iBooks – free
2) ABC Player (to play ABC TV content) – free
3) Amazon Kindle app – free
4) Netflix app – free (requires Netflix account, obviously)
5) Pandora music player – free
6) pocket BLU (for my PS3, haven’t tried it yet) – free
7) Pinball HD (pinball game) $cost
8) IMDb app – free
9) iELECTRIBE – virtual drum machine $cost
10) Weather Channel weather app – free.

I also changed my background to one of the built-in leafy backdrops. My one gripe is not having a “horizontal dock” included with the iPad, as that would be nifty for watching a movie on your desk. You notice this immediately when you start a movie, while it sits upright on the basic Apple dock (which I happen to like, since it will also be nice for my iPod touch). Griffin has announced a nifty horizontal dock, and I pre-ordered one.

So far, so good. I’ll post an update tomorrow once I’ve watched some video, bought and read a book a little bit, watched something from Netflix, and played some Pinball. What a cool little device.

Update: in my email box this morning (Sunday) I got a nice email from Apple thanking me for my purchase with links to guided tours on how to use the iPad. This is the “how to” that I was expecting to find on the front page of the iPad itself, but these are all great tutorials. See: .

Article is Copr. © 2010 by Christopher Simmons – all rights reserved. Story originally appeared on