Two new apps on old topics

Two of my favorite museum apps of late aren’t groundbreaking in the sense that they cover new topics or modes of interactions. In fact, they’re downright old-fashioned in terms of their content, if you can wrap your mind around the idea of an old-fashioned app. I like many things about these apps, but the reason I wanted to share them was that they both a stellar job of doing that thing that museums talk a lot about, but rarely manage to do; namely repackage existing content and design a new experience for a new medium (in this case, the iPad) that is both true to the original and feels like a custom-made iPad app, and not a retread of something that was probably cooler in the original.

1) Minds of Modern Mathematics
by IBM and the Eames Office

In 1961, IBM and the iconic designers Charles and Ray Eames presented “Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond” to the new California Museum of Science and Industry. It was the first of many exhibitions the Eames would create for IBM, and Mathematica would become so well-known that IBM would eventually create additional copies that were starring attractions at several U.S. science centers over the next five decades.

Five years after the opening of the Mathematica exhibit, IBM and Eames created “Men of Modern Mathematics” an enormous timeline of mathematical and scientific history. Copies of this timeline were added to Mathematica and posters were perennial favorites of museum shops and math department offices for years.

The Mathematica exhibit at the Museum of Science, Boston from Flickr user davepatten

To celebrate Ray Eames’ centenary, Eames Office and IBM again joined forces to take the content in the timeline and make an app out of it. The result is “Minds of Modern Mathematics” which is billed as a multimedia exploration of the history of mathematics

The timeline. It's busy, yo!

The Eames, perhaps best known to designers for their chairs and to dorks for “The Powers of Ten” film they made, were instrumental in creating the mid 20th century American aesthetic, partly for their willingness to engage in any medium they fancied; architecture, interior design, furniture, filmmaking, museum exhibitions, etc…

The surviving Mathematica exhibitions are practically artifacts themselves, living embodiments of the Eames’ design mind. They were also masters of content development, as this app makes clear.  If you’ve ever stood in front of one of the “Men of Modern Mathematics” timelines, you can appreciate why its so hard to make a good timeline. They take a (literally) gigantic amount of historical content and somehow make it all tell the story they want. It’s a hypertextual experience in physical form. Your eye can skip and jump from node to node, backwards, forwards, up, and down, as you explore math and its connections to everything going on between 1000-1950.

The app manages to capture the feeling of that experience, while rendering it in a format suitable for the iPad, which takes advantage of the affordances of the iPad in a way think Ray and Charles would’ve enjoyed. Each person or event on the timeline has both text and images and links to more information on the web.  The app changes the user interface depending on whether you’re in landscape or portrait orientation, a la Biblion. And best of all, it collects in one place the short films the Eames made for the exhibition on one screen. The Math Peep Shows are classics of educational media. Concepts like scaling and size, exponents, and other mathematical esoterica are explained and explored in a decidedly whimsical fashion.

The Timeline of "Minds of Modern Mathematics"

Leibniz’s biography. Note the Wikipedia links.

The Eames’ Math Peep Shows, in all their 1960s glory!

Get “Minds of Modern Mathematics” at the iTunes Store


And for extra credit, here’s Ice Cube, celebrating the Eames’ contribution to architecture. Watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

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2) Color Uncovered
by the Exploratorium

Any app that instructs you to drip water on your iPad is OK by me! “Color Uncovered” delivers an app (though they call it an “interactive book” that captures the Exploratorium’s signature style of science experimentation in an incredibly polished and well-designed package.

The Exploratorium description of how an iPad screen works. Priceless.

The Exploratorium is justly famous for their style of exhibition design. Their Cookbook series of books have provided ideas and inspiration for countless science educators and museum builder the world over. And if you’ve ever used an Exploratorium exhibit, this book will feel immediately familiar. Each page starts with a color phenomenon and then unpack that phenomenon using essays, simple interactives or video to make their point.

One of the interactives that require you to use a real world prop.

Get “Color Uncovered” at the iTunes Store

So what do these apps do well?

Both these apps do a great job of taking existing content and delivering it in a new way through the new medium of an Internet-connected tablet. Although both of these apps contain content that already existed, neither is just a repackaging or “repurposing” of existing assets. Each app stands on it’s own as a satisfying tablet experience. That’s the lesson I’ve taken away from playing with both apps. Having great content is not the key. Great content helps, but it’s not enough to guarantee a successful experience, nor is simply copying the original, successful format. Careful design is what makes these apps both feel so pleasurable to use. Writing this has already gotten me thinking about what similar kinds of experiences we’ve got that could be translated in a similar fashion.

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2 responses to “Two new apps on old topics

  1. Thanks for posting about these apps, Ed. The Minds of Modern Mathematics app has certainly been a hit in our house – we spent last night playing with it. Nothing like spending an evening discussing Fibonacci and da Vinci’s golden ratio with a 13 year old! His choice of investigation and conversation topics, I might add. I was also impressed about the links to Wolfram Alpha, as well as the links to Wikipedia. I agree that this is certainly an app that stands on its own merits and doesn’t lose anything by not having seen the exhibition first.

    • Thanks for pointing out the Wolfram Alpha links, Ely. Terrible oversight on my part. I am very excited to turn my kids loose on the Color Uncovered experiments (aside from the ‘drip water on your iPad for Science!’).

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