iPad apps, Part 3: Pleasures of the Kin-Aesthetic, Sculptural and Journalistic

Isn’t it amazing how what takes 15 minutes to present in a MacWorld talk takes three–or even four–blog posts to write?  Now what’s that about?

On the one hand, the speed of speech vs. the slowness of text, and on the other, the speed with which one can navigate an app in a demo versus the number of column inches made up of screenshots combined with narration that it takes to give even a feeble approximation of an experience that is inherently fluid, even poetic.

All of which is merely an indicator of how we’re leaving the text/book economy behind as we change media forms and enter the world of the well executed app. It is cumbersome to translate the fluidity of the latter into the grammar of the former.

In this post we will look at two other very interesting—in some ways model—apps. Then I promise to wrap up this series with a final summary post about lessons learned: some guidelines we can extrapolate from the study of these innovative designs.

In the last post, while praising MoMA’s AbEx NY app for its stunning photography and excellent design, I confessed that the sculptures were less satisfying: the works themselves are often monochrome, and we want to pivot them, see them in 3D.

It took a little known art museum at the University of Virginia, working together with Jason Lawrence, an assistant professor at the same university and co-founder of the company Arqball, to present a convincing proof-of-concept for how 360° views like the ones we saw in The Elements might convey the magic of 3D objects in art museums’ collections.

The resulting app, appropriately if unimaginatively titled UVaM*, is a delight.

The UVaM app visual table of contents

It simply comprises eighteen objects from across the museum’s collections—some Asian, some American Indian, some Ancient Greek, and so on—each seen in such stunning detail, and so easily manipulable and scalable, that you want to explore them.

Finger meets photography: that’s the operative combo.

The objects are presented one at a time: each one makes its entrance on the stage of your screen, does its slow rotating dance against a clean white ground, and will continue to do so unless you stop it—which you should absolutely do. Because you can then rotate it yourself at your own discretion—back and forth, examining it from different angles, stopping it to pinch and zoom in more closely, then rotate it again. You the viewer are manipulating the objects—and they are quite beautiful. Take this Hopi doll, for example:

Hopi doll in UVaM iPad app - with caption, beginning to rotate






There is something so satisfying about direct manipulation. It’s what we’ve done all our lives—ever since infancy. Without a mouse. And when an app gives us the chance to do it again, especially with such exquisite objects, we feel that sense of wonder all over gain.

Here’s another sequence:

Seated Shakyamuni with commentary, facing forward


Note the large type, a pleasure to read à deux in lean-back iPad viewing mode. This is, in fact, an interactive coffee table book. Here are some other views:







In the app, each of these fills the screen of the iPad as you rotate, pinch and zoom, or zoom back out to scroll down and reveal text. You’re fingers, eyes, and mind are in motion together—kinesthetically. This video gives some sense of what it feels like to explore the app in real time.



And finally, I do want to share a foray into luxury art mag-making: Edition 29: The Museum.

The cover/opening page of Edition 29: The Museum

In this app, the once glorious (and sumptuous) magazine Réalités meets Rupert Murdoch’s digitally innovative The Daily, adverts and all, in multiple languages. The ads—for luxury brands like Lincoln, DesignHotels.com, and the Spanish furniture design firm Stua—are diverting and intriguing enough. (Stua in particular discreetly paves the way—for those who click on the animated line of suave Globus chairs that glides across the page and watch the video that follows—to an in-depth exploration of an entire brand identity, online community, and product line, while if you don’t opt to click and watch the video, you’ll never suspect the rest of the contents are even there.)

But for my money—and the app costs $2.99—the editorial content, graphic treatment and sound design are where this program both rises and falls. Each story has its own soundtrack—sometimes a musical/ambient bed, more often the speaking voice of someone interviewed in the article. The images, for their part, don’t sit still on the page, but zoom and recede in a gentle Ken Burns effect; you can select one or another from an array of two or three and it will expand into the enlarged position.

The photography, once again, is superb. (Do I detect a recurring motif?) Gentle, sensuous animations to a lounge music sound bed encourage us to fetishize Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi:

Animated renderings of changing light at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi


Under this stenciled ceiling, we are hypnotized by luxury and abstraction: “A parasol flooded with a rain of lights.”

Another equally intriguing article profiles Israeli artist Michal Rovner, who avers that her goal is “… just to shift somebody’s viewpoint. Because people forget they can change their viewpoint. That’s the main thing: often they feel they have to hold onto a viewpoint and they forget that they can shift it and change it…” We listen to her speak as we page through a succession of images of her work, including a recent installation at the Louvre evoking tensions—and the hope of reconciliation—between Israelis and Palestinians.

Makom II and IV, built from stones of destroyed Israeli and Palestinian houses



The two structures re-assembled in the courtyard of the Louvre. Photo overlaid with app interface.

Yet other articles treat Zaha Hadid and Maxxi, her new museum of modern art in Rome; Ron Arad and  his radical cor-ten-steel-banded design for the new Design Museum in Israel; the Nuuk National Gallery of Greenland; and a retrospective of the various Serpentine pavilions that have served as annual showcases for international architects in London. These interiors and exteriors of present and future museums partake of an aesthetic that I would call architecture porn: sans people, often sans artworks: just pure spaces with their changing lighting effects.

But it’s not all about architecture: there are more artist profiles, too—including sculptor Anish Kapoor ( who “manages through strictly physical means to offer a new philosophical experience”) and French photographer Stéphane Couturier. The app makes effective use of continuous panoramic page layouts—like foldouts in a traditional book:






and has an original, readily accessible Table of Contents consisting of a thumbnail grid of every page that can be called up periodically in your progress:

A Page Index overview allows you to jump anywhere and set the soundtrack Â



I should note that the app is not without shortcomings. First of all, it’s a considerable download, so be forewarned. There is no sharing via social media; like its paperbound precursors or a CD-ROM, it’s a self-contained universe (except for the Stua ad!). In spite of the superb photography and design, you cannot zoom in on the images. But most aggravating is the lack of readily available controls for the soundtracks that accompany each article. While invariably interesting the first time through, they crash when they reach their end, can become tiresome on return viewing/listening, and are controlled by hidden geometric shapes that represent the triumph of abstract design over function. Hélas!

So all in all the app is sophisticated, intellectually engrossing, beautifully designed, and sometimes frustrating. Well, as they say, it’s early days in the App World!

Next time, I’ll try to extrapolate some lessons and guidelines from the apps we have examined—knowing that they, too, are subject to change.

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