Digital Reading Room: The final chapter

When I began this column a little more than a year ago, content-rich multimedia apps, designed primarily for the iPad, seemed like an increasingly innovative section of mobile app stores. Some iOS developers were coming up with new ways to present plays, books, photos, artwork, music, magazine content, and other materials, often adding both entertainment value and depth to the static, analog sources from which they drew.

That’s changed over the past four or five months. Some great developers continue to produce extraordinary content-rich apps, but often off of formulas that they know work. Every once in a while, a stunning new app will appear, but not often enough to warrant a regular column. So this will be the final edition of Digital Reading Room. I’ve enjoyed it greatly, and hope to continue periodically bringing noteworthy apps of this type to your attention.

For this final column, I decided to draw some added attention to seven apps that have stood out from the crowd.

The Orchestra

The Orchestra is stunning in that it allows you to view many aspects of an orchestra in action. You can change what you view—the score, commentary, closeups of different sections, and so on—on the fly, while also listening to the piece without pause.

The Orchestra details, from multiple perspectives, the who, what, when, where, and why of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and five other pieces.

You can view each of the pieces in a variety of ways: on your screen, you can look at separate close-up videos of the conductor, the woodwinds, and the strings at the top of the screen, listen to or read commentary by the conductor or musicians as the piece plays, and view the score in real time on the bottom of the screen. You can also read about the background of the piece—and its place in the history of orchestral music.

Beautifully designed, The Orchestra, with its simple yet robust interactive multimedia elements, represents the power of the iPad, and skillful app producers, to make the complex accessible, and enjoyable.

Where to Get It: $14; iOS App Store

Barefoot World Atlas

The appeal of Barefoot World Atlas comes with the fascinating, eclectic selection of features it displays, including the Rubik’s Cube, discovered by flying over Albania to nearby Hungary, where the toy was invented.

Barefoot World Atlas opens with a cartoonish globe, overlaid with drawings of animals, buildings, and other landmarks, and natural wonders. You can spin the globe and just tap on a country or a drawing to get more information. (Data such as current temperature and distance from your location appears in real-time by Wolfram Alpha). Although the written information is sparse, it’s well-done, often including a juicy tidbit that is likely to entice kids to explore further on their own. One example: the short paragraph on giraffes included the nugget that the animal’s tongue is 1.5 feet long and purple.

This one’s a gem.

Where to Get It: $5; iOS App Store

iPoe

This “The Masque of the Red Death” screenshot shows off the beautiful layout and captivating images in iPoe.

A true treat, iPoe: The Interactive and Illustrated Edgar Allen Poe Collection beautifully enhances the writing of Edgar Allan Poe with illustrations by David Garcia Forés, most of which are subtly animated and interactive. The spooky soundtrack and occasional sound effects add perfect ambience.

iPoe includes the poem “Annabel Lee” and three short stories: “The Oval Portrait,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” You also get a brief, well-written biography of Poe and a sketchbook that features line drawings of images from the stories, which you can swipe to reveal their colorings. Simply superb.

Where to Get It: $4; iOS App Store

To The Brink: JFK And The Cuban Missile Crisis

Thanks to To The Brink, you don’t need to know much about Kennedy’s presidency understand how the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded and how complex—and terrifying—it was in the context of the times.

To The Brink refashions materials from the JFK Library and Museum into a multimedia history lesson that manages to be as dramatic and gripping as it is informative.

Each day of the 13-day standoff includes a well-chosen quote and a brief summary of the situation on that day; most include photos, fascinating primary documents, and slideshows of meetings that pack an extraordinary amount of drama, thanks to the clear audio recordings of the meetings that play along with the slides.

To the Brink can be easily absorbed in an hour or less, and it’s difficult to imagine a better learning experience packed into the length of a typical college lecture.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

My London Story

The professionalism with which My London Story has been produced is exemplified by the thought that’s gone into its interface, which makes it easy to access most of the app’s functions, including the Edition Index, from within each story.

My London Story is comprised of nonfiction narrative stories that are as precisely located as possible within London. The app, which issues a new edition of 10 stories every two months, aims to build a deep, dense, and nuanced view of the city through the eyes of the people who live there.

Each of the first two editions is first-rate. The stories are varied and eclectic—one is about a scammer who tries to lure in gullible, wannabe models, another is about cold-water swimming, a third covers a bike-riding ritual. Thus far, the superb writing has been provided by published novelists, playwrights, and journalists from publications such as The New York Times and Wired, but the editors are seeking stories from anyone who has one to tell.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

To This Day

Shane Koyczan’s powerful voice combined with excellent animation make To This Day a must-download app.

“To This Day” is both the name of an app and the title of the poem it’s based on, Shane Koyczan’s moving verse about bullying. Koyczan’s stirring voice and the accompanying flip-book style animations have just enough wit to make difficult material engaging and entertaining. It’s a difficult balancing act, and it works because Koyczan tells about the unique aspects of his personal experience while spreading a message to his unseen audience—you are not alone, and there is hope. Also, “To This Day” invites repeat viewings, as many pages have animation sequences that change when you revisit them.

In short, it’s a must-download for parents and teachers, one that could spark many useful conversations—and, at the very least, provide some solace and inspiration to millions of kids.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

WWF Together

Giant Pandas are among the 12 threatened or endangered animals featured in WWF Together, an app from the World Wildlife Fund that highlights part of the organization’s mission.

WWF Together, an app produced by the World Wildlife Foundation, is an exemplar of how to successfully package rich, interactive, multimedia material that can appeal to both children and adults while effectively promoting a cause. Users can learn about a dozen endangered or threatened animals (giant pandas, snow leopards, whales, polar bears, and more) via photos, videos, text, and interactive elements.

WWF Together does mention the work it’s doing to preserve the animals, and what more needs to be done. The app includes relatively subtle appeals for help that become harder to ignore as you immerse yourself in this digital world of animals.

Where to Get It: Free; iOS App Store

When writing this column, I came across a few more apps worthy of one last mention, with some of these downloads coming from the same developers highlighted above.

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