Showing posts with label iPad. Show all posts
Showing posts with label iPad. Show all posts

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scribd: Getting Even Cloudier

I've noticed that more and more of my "media experiences" are streaming from the internet. With the help of Apple TV or the wifi connection in our Blu-Ray player, we rent movies from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. Although I have local mp3 copies of most of my music, I do most of my music listening from two cloud sources, Amazon Cloud or Apple's iCloud. Sometimes for variety or laziness I will stream music from Pandora or iTunes Radio. I even stream pictures of my granddaughter from my daughter's iPhone (Apple's shared photostream).

Now I've started "streaming books." For several years, I've been doing most of my reading with Kindle e-books, buying several a month from Amazon. This is convenient but somewhat wasteful, since I read most books only once, and Kindle books cannot be shared or sold. Books are very small files compared to video or music, and they usually download in seconds. This also means that books could easily be "streamed," i.e., read directly over the web, once someone comes up with a business model to support this.

Now someone has, a company called Scribd ("the world's digital library") that's been around for years as a document sharing site, mainly for free documents (I have long had my Orbiter tutorial book Go Play In Space on Scribd for free PDF download). I haven't really looked at Scribd for a long time, but it's clear that they have been busy, and they have expanded into "non-free" books. Their latest thing is a subscription service which gives you online reading access to many commercial e-books for a flat rate of $8.99 a month. It's currently limited to only a few publishers, and mainly "back catalog" books, with relatively few current best sellers, similar in that respect to Netflix for movies.They currently offer over 100,000 titles, and they are working to add publishers, so I'm sure this number will increase over time.

They have a 30 day free trial, so I'm trying it. I'm pretty sure I will continue, because I have already found at least 10 books that I have previously considered buying on Kindle, as well as a dozen more that are new finds. My idea is that rather than buying 2-4 books a month on Kindle (for maybe $20+ a month), I'll probably read a couple of Scribd books and buy maybe 1-2 Kindle books if they aren't available on Scribd. It doesn't bother me that I won't "own" those books (I'm guessing I don't technically own my Kindle books either, only a license to download and read them whenever I want). I'm OK with the "paid borrowing" model, and Scribd allows you to download up to 10 books onto mobile devices for offline reading. The Scribd app for iOS works really well on iPhone and iPad, similar in most respects to the Kindle app. Since $8.99 is less than the typical cost for a single Kindle book, Scribd will be a good deal even if it only keeps me from buying one Kindle book a month. This makes me wonder how long it will be before Amazon or Google buys Scribd (maybe they will wait a couple of months and see how the subscription service does).

So I like this. Now if I could only eliminate my real book bottleneck - the fact that I can still only read one book at a time, and that there are still only 24 hours in a day. Severely limited mental bandwidth! As soon as they invent a multi-threaded brain, I'm ready to upgrade.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Starmap Media: Personal Trainer

Starmap was the first astronomy app I bought when I got my first iPod Touch in 2008. Although I had used astronomy software like Stellarium on PC, I was amazed at the possibility of having a planetarium in my pocket. Something I could take outside with me and hold up to the sky to help identify objects, or search to find the expected positions of stars and planets based on current position and time. All with a simple touch, drag, and pinch-zoom interface. Over time, other astronomy apps emerged, I got an iPhone which included GPS and compass, and Starmap added even more features. Life is good for fans of iOS devices and night skies.

Now Starmap has been expanded to improve its usefulness as an astronomy learning tool. Starmap Media was recently released as both an add-in to Starmap and as a free standalone app. As with many iOS apps, "free" isn't the whole story. There are in-app purchases to provide most of the content, so at the first level,  Starmap Media functions as a specialized audio book reader for a series of "astronomy lessons" or stories.

But what's really cool is that the "lessons" are integrated with planetarium software that knows the time and location and what is visible in the sky at any given time (apart from such spoilers as clouds). So if you go outside on a clear night this week and fire up "Wandering the Summer Sky," the app will point you to the various objects of interest while the narrator tells you what to look for and why. It's like having an astronomer as your personal night-sky tour guide. It doesn't answer questions (yet), but it's still pretty amazing.

While there are a few free stories or "star tours"  supplied with the app, most are in-app purchases that cost 99 cents each to download (once downloaded, Internet access is not needed to use the stories). There are stories for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced topics. The writing, production, and narration are smooth and professional, with many multimedia features built in. These include animated overlays that explain the shapes and positions of objects and patterns in the sky, diagrams and pictures of nebulae, galaxies, etc., as well as historic and mythological background.

I tried out a few of the stories at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels (full disclosure: I was given  free reviewer access to a number of stories). For example, "Stellar Smoke Rings" is a 12 minute story labeled intermediate. It points you to and explains several well-known planetary nebulae including the Ring Nebula and the Dumbbell Nebula. It was easy to follow the instructions to find the correct area of the sky. The narration waits for you to get there and touch an OK button. You can press pause at any time and an interactive contents list pops up, allowing you to jump backwards or forwards as needed.

Another intermediate story, "More Than Meets the Eye," points you to a couple of seemingly minor constellations as background for a nice explanation of stellar magnitudes and measures of sky viewing quality. The advanced story "The Arcturus Stream" talks about the behavior and properties of the easy-to-find star Arcturus, and about some aspects of star formation that can be inferred from the amounts of heavy elements such as metals that are present or absent in a star's spectrum (the "rainbow" of light from the star that astronomers use to determine what elements are in a star, using a telescope instrument called a spectroscope).

Any problems? For one thing, even the "advanced" stories I've seen so far don't seem very advanced for someone with a serious interest in astronomy who has done much reading. I have studied a lot of astronomy over the years, but I don't mind a review of a familiar topic presented in a fresh way. And the star tours include topics from recent research, such as the idea that the stars in the relatively fast-moving Arcturus stream may have originated in a small satellite galaxy that was gravitationally captured by our Galaxy. It's also nice to have a professional narrator presenting the material "in context" as you look at the star or constellation in question. It's like having a "personal trainer" for star gazing!

What about the cost? I think of it like a subscription to Sky & Telescope magazine. The sky is big, with many things to see and learn, and it changes through the year. This is why astronomy magazines sell, even though there are many astronomy books out there - they keep you up to date, show you things you may have missed, present information and recent research in new ways, and tie stories to current events such as spacecraft launches and encounters. Starmap Media stories are like astronomy magazine articles read by a professional narrator and keyed to what you can see in the sky right now (there is also a "couch mode" for exploring when skies are cloudy or the objects are out of view). You only buy the ones you want (you can download a brief free preview of any paid story to see if it interests you). Once downloaded, the stories are yours to enjoy whenever you like.

If you have an iPad, a bonus is that the free Starmap Media app is a universal app that works well on either iPhone/iPod Touch screens or larger iPad screens. The Starmap app itself comes in two versions, one for small screens and a more expensive HD version for iPads. You may want the HD or iPhone "pro" version for other features (such as expanded catalogs and telescope control), but it's nice that the Starmap Media star tours and sky displays work well on any iOS display (you can use the iPhone version of Starmap on an iPad, using the 2x button to fill the screen, but the fonts etc. don't look as nice when you view a scaled version of an iPhone app on an iPad).

Starmap Media is a really cool way to add to your enjoyment and learning while exploring the stars and planets. If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, try it out the next time you are out looking at the marvelous night sky.

Monday, April 08, 2013

F-Sim Space Shuttle - Video!


F-Sim Space Shuttle (iTunes, also available for Android devices) is the only gaming app that stays on my iPad and iPhone for very long. I don't play it all the time, but every once in a while it's nice to shoot a few space shuttle approaches just for the fun of it. The latest update (v2.8) just came out, and developer Sascha Ledinsky has added a really cool feature: the ability to export videos of your flights!

He added external views and in-app replay features long ago, but with video export, you can share your accomplishments with the world - in HD! So of course I had to try it. This YouTube video features a "safe" landing (not bad except for landing left of the runway center line), with a musical soundtrack added in iMovie (2 minutes of the song "Down & Out" from my recent album "Look at You," available on iTunes, not to mention Amazon.com).

UPDATE: A small tip has helped my landings immensely - pinch-zooming to enlarge the HUD display so the FPM (flight path marker) and "guidance diamond" are easier to view and position. I finally made a "perfect" final approach landing for 900,832 points, recorded in this video. Next stop: a perfect full-HAC approach and landing, and a million point landing. Then I will retire just like the real shuttle pilots. Unless I decide to pursue shuttle aerobatics, like this amazing barrel roll on short final, followed by a good landing (flown by Sascha, the developer of F-Sim Space Shuttle). Slick!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Audiobus Shakes Up iOS Recording


I've been writing and recording songs using iOS apps on my iPod Touch for a couple of years. In the last year, I've also done a lot of writing and recording on the iPad, whose larger screen makes it much easier to use with simulated synth keyboards and recording consoles. I've gotten good results with apps such as Thumbjam, Chordbot, and especially Apple's own Garageband app. Most of these apps support some sort of data export or audio copy/paste, which allows combining sounds from different apps, although this is usually an awkward trial-and-error process.

Sometime last year, an app called Audiobus was released, described as the missing link or "cable"  between other iOS music-making apps. For apps supported by Audiobus, this allows nearly effortless real-time combination of different music apps. The makers of Audiobus and the various music app developers have been steadily adding to the library of iOS apps that work with Audiobus. I bought it a few weeks ago and have been experimenting with various combinations. But the other day was the breakthrough for me - Apple released version 1.4 of Garageband, with Audiobus support! Now I can work in my most comfortable iPad recording environment and easily incorporate the sounds of the many synths and other music making apps I have.

This takes the iPad almost into the realm of "grownup" recording applications on other platforms, such as Sonar X2, which I use on a Windows 7 laptop. It certainly competes in the variety of available "soft synths" and exceeds the Windows/Mac world in touch-specialized interfaces, best exemplified by Thumbjam. Of course there is always more to want: with all the instruments I can now use in Garageband, how can I get by with only eight tracks? Yes, I know the Beatles made Sgt. Pepper with only four track tape recorders (and like producer George Martin, you can bounce sub-mixes down to stereo to free up some tracks for more parts - just add genius, and you're the Beatles!).

Of course I still have Sonar to use for projects requiring dozens of tracks, so there is no reason to complain, especially when the iPad travels so well. One problem that I have in both environments: dozens of wonderful tools with enormous depth and breadth of features that I have barely started to discover. Do I spend time getting better with the tools? Or do I spend time creating new music? I try to do both at the same time!

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Orchestra App on iPad



The Orchestra is one of the coolest music, education, and entertainment applications I have ever seen. It is what multimedia was meant to be - an intimate exploration of 8 pieces of classical music, conducted and explained by Esa Pekka-Salonen, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. It is made specifically for the iPad and makes great use of the touch interface and the large screen.

Basically, there are 8 short pieces of classical music (most are excerpts), from Haydn to modern, played by the orchestra while the score scrolls and videos are shown of Salonen conducting and of sections of the orchestra. There is also a diagram of the orchestra where each active instrument "lights up." All of this is perfectly synchronized with the music, and is adjustable in various ways (e.g., piano roll display instead of music notation for the score).There is also optional commentary by the conductor and select orchestra players.

There are also brief video interviews with the conductor on special aspects of each piece, text information about the history of each piece, and a fantastic tour of all the orchestra instruments, with a brief video comment and demonstration of each one.

I enjoy a lot of classical music, but as a largely self-trained musician, I have often felt that I am missing a lot of what is going on. So i have sought out books and software to help me with this over the years. When CD-ROM arrived in the early 90's (pre-Internet), some of the first multimedia programs were musical explorations similar to this. I remember having one by Microsoft on Mozart's "Dissonance Quartet." That was good, but not nearly as interactive and instructive as this new app.

So far I've explored two of the pieces (Debussy and Haydn) and some of the orchestra and background features. There is much to see, do, and learn here.

Two small complaints. It's expensive by app standards at $13.99, but compared to a music CD or DVD, it is a fantastic bargain. There is so much artistry and work in this product. And with the exception of Debussy's brief but complete "Faun" prelude, all the pieces are excerpts. This is because as a self-contained app, all content must fit in 2 GB, the iOS app size limit (the app is 1.8 GB). They apparently made a choice to showcase multiple works from the 18th century to now, rather than choosing one complete work to analyze. I think that was the right choice. If you explore these excerpts, I think it will greatly increase your appreciation and understanding of the complete works, and of other music as well. I have already learned things I never knew about conducting and orchestral instruments.

Friday, April 06, 2012

iPad Rationalization

I swear, it wasn't my fault! I was simply helping to configure an iPad 2 bought for my mother-in-law. I never expected to fall in love (who am I kidding - of course I did). For the few decades that the iPad has been available (allegedly only two years), I've thought about getting one, but I managed to convince myself that it was really just an overgrown iPod Touch, which I have been using for centuries (since fall 2008). Pretty much runs all the same apps, right? Besides, I travel a lot, and the iPod Touch is so handily pocket-sized, while the iPad is nearly laptop size, right? Another thing to lug around and keep charged. Who needs it!

Well after I spent a week or so setting up that iPad 2, I could feel my anti-iPad rationalizations cracking under the strain of a nearly life-size HUD on my simulated space shuttle and the large instrument and control interfaces in GarageBand (yes, I was testing out a few apps my mother-in-law wouldn't need). I tried out a few magazines like WIRED, Newsweek, National Geographic, and Discover Magazine, and they were definitely much more enjoyable than on the pathetically tiny screen of the iPod Touch.  Mainstream apps like web browsing, email, YouTube, and the like are easier to use too. FaceTime and Skype are wonderful on a face-size screen. My willpower was crumbling...

Apple delivered the final blow with the "new iPad" ("3G") announcement - super-high-res screen, faster graphics processors, and a better camera for the same price points as the iPad 2 (though they did drop the price of some iPad 2 models). I was sold. So I gave in and ordered one (wifi only) - telling my wife that this would be a family iPad, not my iPad. I can share (sometimes). I promised I would still use the iPod Touch for travel. And so far I have not taken the iPad on a trip (so far haven't taken a trip...).

The new iPad is really great. Many apps have already issued updates to take advantage of the 2048x1536 retina display, including F-SIM Shuttle (above). Gorgeous rendering of my still less-than-perfect landings. Music creation apps are wonderful on the larger screen. Apple's free movie trailer app was upgraded and the HD previews are amazing. One surprising fave is the NPR Music app (also free). With more room for interface controls and graphics, and plenty of video, it makes it a pleasure to explore new music. I really appreciate that many of the apps I had bought for the iPod Touch are "universal" apps that also work great on the iPad. I've only bought a couple of "HD" apps specialized for the iPad.

Who knew that apple flavored kool-aid could be so tasty?